Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2006

Snakes…why did it have to be snakes?

Internet fave 'Snakes on a Plane' can't quite live up to all that hype

Snakes on a Plane
New Line Cinema
Director: David R. Ellis
Screenplay: John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Bobby Cannavale, Todd Louiso, David Koechner and Byron Lawson
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Opened August 18, 2006
(out of four)

With a title like Snakes on a Plane, it could only be a B-movie. So when Samuel L. Jackson started talking out last year and giving the then-months away thriller a boatload of free PR, that probably shouldn't have been the studio's first clue that the film was destined to be either campy cult classic, or a completely forgotten blip on the Hollywood radar.

But it did take them that long to figure it out…which is why, once the Internet buzz started to circulate, New Line gave the cast and crew five extra days of shooting to turn a standard PG-13 popcorn thriller into a more fitting piece of R-rated, deliciously campy goodness.

Unfortunately, what comes across in the finished product is exactly what one could expect from such an approach: A mixed bag of contrasting styles and intentions. The problem isn't that it's messy, necessarily--it's that two different movies come across, and it doesn't quite work in either way.

It's not good enough to work as a horror-thriller, and it's not bad enough to be so-bad-it's good. After the online message-board community turned it into an overnight sensation months before its release--based solely on the film's title, mind you--I think the studio was hoping for the latter, sort of a "ha-ha, we're in on the joke" from the studio that probably realized it had a mediocre movie on its hands.

The film, which was predicted by experts to net as much as $30 million during its opening weekend, made barely half that, with a total three-day haul of $15.2 mil. That was still good enough for No. 1 for the weekend, but not nearly what many were hoping for or expecting. It's pretty concrete proof that the Internet still isn't quite the barometer for success people think it is--though it's getting closer to that point. Even the $15.2 million is likely far higher than it ever would have gotten without all the buzz.

However, having endured all the hype leading up to the movie's release on aforementioned online forums and now seen the film for itself, I have to say that what it's trying to do is extremely endearing. I wanted to love this movie, simply because of the passion and excitement people like Samuel L. Jackson (always an immensely likeable actor) have brought to it. I wanted it to completely work, to become the box-office smash people hoped, to be the true Event Movie of an otherwise disappointing summer.

But it just can't--it's too unsure and uneven, though it almost redeems itself with several inspired moments and Jackson's typically charismatic performance. The problem is the film is trying to be unintentionally funny--on purpose. That contradicts itself just as much as you'd think it would. It so enjoys the idea that it could or should be a B-movie classic that it falters under the weight of such an expectation. I can't say I "expected" more from this movie, but I certainly hoped for it.

Anyway, as for the plot (if you even have to ask): Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) is a witness for the prosecution against a bloodthirsty gangster named Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Being a conventional thriller that insists on perpetuating racial stereotypes, Mr. Kim naturally keeps in shape by doing kung-fu.

Anyway, Sean is being transported aboard Pacific Air Flight 121 (which, at one point, was the title of the movie) by a friendly but bombastic federal agent named Nelville Flynn (Jackson). But Kim, evil genius that he is, has a diabolically brilliant and needlessly complicated scheme: Put a bunch of foreign, poisonous snakes on the airplane, feed them pheromones (which make them go crazy) and hope that the snakes cause so much havoc that the whole plane will go down in smoke, poor little Sean included.

There are those, both on sites like RottenTomatoes and at the showing I attended, who automatically raved about the movie. I was glad to see it, but I have the distinct feeling that if they had seen the same exact movie sans hype, they wouldn't have given it a second thought. It is, as Roger Ebert said, "the age of irony" that made Snakes on a Plane a [minor] hit.

That said, "Snakes" is not without its delights. It's mildly enjoyable all the way through--but only to a point. The deliberately over-the-top death scenes are just plain entertaining. And let me just make a point about Samuel L. Jackson: The man is a poet with the four-letter word. He is the Shakespeare of the F-bomb. And his big line, the one everyone's been talking about and waiting for all summer long, is indeed worth the wait. It just might be the moment of the year. And for that reason, despite its overstated pop-culture value, I'll be looking forward to the inevitable sequel, "Snakes on a Train."

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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