Years from now this 2006 movie, and the brief phenomenon it inspired, will be looked upon as one of the most unique products of its time. It inspired an unprecedented amount of prerelease interest, and even incorporated suggestions by fans. The surprise is that the film actually works fairly well.
I can understand why so many people were anxious to see this film: there’s something about the combination of poisonous snakes, a plane and Samuel L. Jackson that just clicks. The film also has one of the greatest, most self-explanatory movie titles of all time, which thankfully survived its producers’ boneheaded effort to change it to the far less auspicious PACIFIC AIR FLIGHT 121 (thank Sam Jackson, who made ‘em change it back, claming the original title was “the only reason I took the job”).
The internet hype for SNAKES was and remains unprecedented. It begun with a brief write-up on the popular Ain’t-it-Cool-News site about a pitch for the movie. Over the following months amateur films referencing the still-unseen SNAKES ON A PLANE appeared, as did fan-made posters, comics and other things. New Line’s marketing department could be excused for thinking they had a monster hit on their hands, potentially one of the top-grossing movies of all time. Suggestions from SNAKES-obsessed bloggers were actually incorporated into the film, including the immortal line “I’ve had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!”
Yet the movie, released in August of ’06, opened to just $15 million. That’s about what any well-performing genre film might be expected to rake in, but considering the enormous anticipation the film engendered that opening was a massive disappointment. The internet phenomenon for its part dissipated almost immediately upon the film’s release, and is now little more than a memory.
Anyway: Neville Flynn is a macho FBI agent charged with escorting young punk Sean Jones, who’s set to testify against a powerful Asian mobster, from Hawaii to LA. Flynn commandeers the first class section of a red eye flight for himself and Sean. This of course annoys the plane’s first class passengers, who include a wealthy rapper, a wannabe actress and a slimy businessman. What none of them are aware of is that the mobster wants to ensure that Sean never makes it to LA, and so packed a crate filled with an assortment of poisonous snakes on the plane.
Once the plane is in the air the snakes get loose. The first victims are a couple getting it on in the john and the next attack is in anther lavatory, where a dude gets his “big boy” chomped. Things really go haywire when turbulence causes the oxygen masks to deploy—along with hundreds of snakes! Chaos ensues until Flynn comes up with the bright idea of building a luggage barrier at one end of the plane, thus walling off the snakes.
But there’s more trouble: the pilot is bit, forcing Flynn and a stewardess to commandeer the plane, and the snakes break through the barrier, causing the passengers to flee to the off limits first class section. By this point Flynn decides he’s had enough, and so decides to “open some fuckin’ windows!”
Were he active twenty years ago, I’m positive the film’s director, the late David R. Ellis (who also helmed the wonderfully shlocky New Line flicks FINAL DESTINATION II and CELLULAR), would have cranked out low budgeters for cut-rate outfits like Concorde, Cannon or Empire. It was in those companies that B-movie masters like Stuart Gordon and Albert Pyun got their start, moviemakers whose work SNAKES ON A PLANE explicitly recalls. But Gordon and Pyun tend to make straight-to-video fodder, whereas SNAKES is most definitely an audience picture, best experienced in the company of the rowdiest crowd available.
David Ellis may not have been a particularly subtle or introspective filmmaker, but he knew how to crank out a reasonably slick and satisfying potboiler. SNAKES ON A PLANE contains a great deal of cornball action in its early scenes, and as it goes on delivers leering sex and nudity, not to mention the most outrageous snake carnage you’ll ever experience: we see a snakes fondle a woman while she sleeps, devour a man’s head, bite a young boy’s arm, etc. Ellis and screenwriters John Hefferan and Sebastian Gutierrez accomplish all this with a distinct self-awareness lacking in most grade-B fare, which at times does admittedly grow a tad annoying (i.e. Samuel Jackson’s cutesy quip about “Snakes on crack!”).
The whole thing is such a kick I’m willing to forgive the occasionally distracting CGI effects and uneven performances. Samuel L. Jackson is the above-the-title star and stand-out performer, doing his steely Jules Winfield shtick, which turns out to be exactly what this film needs. I strongly doubt anyone else could deliver the already-legendary line “I’ve had it with these mutherfuckin’ snakes on this mutherfuckin’ plane!” with anywhere near the same nutty gravitas Sam Jackson does.
SNAKES ON A PLANE
New Line Cinema
Director: David R. Ellis
Producers: Gary Levinsohn, Don Granger, Craig Berenson
Screenplay: John Hefferan, Sebastian Gutierrez
Cinematography: Adam Greenburg
Editing: Howard E. Smith
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Bobby Cannavale, Flew Alexander, Todd Louiso, Kenan Thompson, Sunny Mabrey, Elsa Pataky, David Koechner, Lin Shaye, Bruce James, Keith Dallas, Casey Dubois