While Snakes on a Plane (2006) is an apt title for a high concept, pop culture romp hearkening back to the disaster films and rubber suit creature features of the 1970’s, it flounders indecisively between action thriller and campy suspense flick and eventually falls somewhere displeasingly in between. As a concept movie with snakes instead of a colliding small plane (Airport 1975) or a terrorist bomber (Airport 1970) or any myriad of other plot devices involving a jumbo jet airliner, story and character development is a bit thin, let alone of much consequence; such trappings generally run light in these films. After a clumsy setup explaining why there are snakes on a plane and how said snakes are going to get loose and kill everyone, we eventually mull over the otherwise uninteresting victims and are reminded of the ludicrous plot that only truly serves to wrap things up at the end of the movie. Once we have a pretty good idea of who is going to get killed it doesn’t take long for the carnage to begin – perhaps the most rewarding element of the entire picture. After that the film resorts to death by snake gimmickry and after five minutes it is clear there isn’t going to be much else.
“It is what it is,” wrote one reviewer who felt the film delivered exactly what it claimed and those criticizing the film missed the point altogether. “It’s a B-movie creature feature,” commented another online fan, citing what he believed to be a classic example of a campy film – Camp, by the way, is essentially a stylistic choice that is appealing precisely because of its bad taste and often an ironic jab at implausible if not down right ridiculous scenarios. Perhaps the reigning maestro of camp is John Waters and his celebrated, ostentatious films Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, and Polyester. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is often included in such discussions for its banality, artifice and extremity bordering on the perverse. I can’t argue that “Snakes” fits the definition of campy, nor can I criticize those who watched with glee as passenger after passenger were taken out the snake way. There are moments of camp that are indeed just silly fun but unlike Water’s films, “Snakes” takes itself far too seriously for a hundred and six minutes.
The concept or “ploy” is to pit the audience’s ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) against mass airline passenger idiocy ala Jones Town without the Kool-Aid. On the roster of soon to be killed is a yuppie princess and her dog, a hot young couple who get naked in the bathroom for moments of nudity and groping, the hapless hipsters and other less memorable characters who bite the dust in not-so much shocking as silly ways. As one reviewer wrote, whatever death by snake scenario you can imagine is pretty much in this film. Chihuahua lovers be warned, you might want to look away during one scene where one dog enters and no dogs leave. The filmmakers must have been absent that day in film school when the teacher explained the difference between campy and crappy. “Snakes” just doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up – funny, campy, serious, or none of the above. Any effort screening the aforementioned Airport films, disaster flicks, or Saturday afternoon actions movies of the past thirty years would have offered them at least some semblance of how to tell a bad story; here the plot is made out of pythons and cobras, asps and vipers, part CGI, part rubber, and the occasional real thing, only no one seems the least bit interested except Sam Jackson – the quintessential angry cop with a gun and an endless supply of one-liners. He’s maintained a career on wide-eyed verbal assaults but he is far more interesting in films like Eve’s Bayou (1997), Unbreakable (2000) and Black Snake Moan (2006) — no pun intended on the latter. Jackson was also moderately more interesting in Neil LaBute’s 2008 film Lakeview Terrace but that film falls apart soon after good cop becomes crazed cop and robber with an attitude. Some applaud the camp factor of “Snakes”, embracing sheer silly in this “movie of the moment” that will fade quickly enough, replaced by similar forgettable films that may or may not know when to laugh at themselves.
Snakes on a Plane is, if little else, a cleverly marketed film using word of mouth and enthusiasm on the internet to catch the attention of television where parodies and jokes showed up in cable and regular news stations – reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, “Snakes” is very much a product, the mixing and matching of ideas spread out over several writers after first time scribe and Hollywood outsider David Dalessandro came up with the concept back in the 90’s. He was working as an admin at the University of Pittsburgh at the time and it is reported that over 30 studios passed on the script before landing in a slight tug-o-war of sorts before New Line grabbed it up. At that point the product began a buzz, a low hum actually, and eventually screenwriter Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, War of the Worlds) was approached to work on the script. What happened next could only happen now, in this era of viral videos and pocket video cameras capable of questionable but no less popular 1080p video recorded movies, and some might argue only because of The Blair Witch Project and the low-to-no budget film movement of the late 1990’s – essentially Blair Witch turned a $22,000 dollar film into a $250 million dollar success story. Once on board, Friedman wrote about “Snakes” on his blog, “I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing” and the proverbial juggernaut of internet hype spread from social networking sites to blogs and even got the notice of Jon Stewart. Before long movie geeks and camp film aficionados were popping up all over and actually contributed in changing the films PG13 rating to an R when the studio noticed how many people were actually interested in the film. The result is an otherwise bland concept film with a not so modest $33 million dollar budget, a very notable actor (Jackson) in the lead with Julianna Margulies (E.R, The Good Wife) and others. The film would go on to receive oddly high ratings and just over $62 million dollars in domestic and foreign box office receipts according to our friends over at boxofficemojo.com.
It is unclear whether audiences and critics will ever find an agreeable middle ground regarding the significance of, or outright dismal of, “Snakes”. Call it a classically campy, nonsensical popcorn flick or the result of a successful internet support campaign from a sizable fan base, but one thing is certain, the movie made money and like it or not you can’t deny the power of box office receipts in Hollywood.