The Theory of Chaos

Monday, August 21, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Snakes on a Plane

Full review behind the jump

Snakes on a Plane

: David R. Ellis
: story by John Heffernan and David Dalessandro, screenplay by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez
: Don Granger, Gary Levinsohn, Craig Berenson
: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Keith “Blackman” Dallas, Lin Shaye, Bruce James, Sunny Mabrey, David Koechner, Bobby Canavale, Todd Louiso

Snakes on a Plane-

I know how difficult living up to high expectations can be. A cult movie is a precious thing to its admirers, a found fusion of eccentricity and verve that burrows messily into our hearts like no heavy-footed mainstream Hollywood product ever could. You’re in the unique position of having built a cult following before anyone even saw you, and in fact history might regard you, with your deliciously blatant title, as being Hollywood’s first example of a cult advertising campaign.

But now here you are, with fans lusting to be satisfied, and I can see what this has done to you. I don’t know if you know anymore what kind of movie you want to be. Do you want to be a bloody thriller? A violent dark comedy? Blaxploitation meets Snakesploitation? I think the reason you have been so anticipated is because of peoples’ abiding hope that you could somehow be all three. And from time to time you show glimpses of fulfilling that promise – but let’s face it, there are only a few mad geniuses out of there who, with the force of their deviant love, could have willed such alchemy into being. Sam Raimi would have known how to make you. George Romero. But that’s the thing – they would have recognized that you didn’t belong in the studio sausage factory. And here you are, unable to escape the bloat of the system that made you, and you do not fly so gloriously and geekily as was hoped.

Still, you deserve praise: your screenplay by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez (story by Heffernan and David Dalessandro) does demonstrate a deep well of inspiration when it comes to the terrible consequences of your titular beasts being unleashed in your titular enclosed space.

Your plot, well, let’s be accurate, it’s less a plot than it is an excuse, concerns Stock Red Bull-Drinking Extreme Sports Enthusiast Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips), who witnesses a murder committed by Stock Hot-Headed Asian Gangster Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). This is the tricky point I’m trying to get at, Snakes on a Plane: you hope by hamming up stereotyped personalities to win my favor, but you’re working with professionals here. It’s no accident that many cult films are made by amateurs (or are the spectacular failures of supposed professionals), it’s their misguided enthusiasm and lack of polish which makes their rough performing such a charm. Here you’ve just got competent actors trying to play bad characters, and none of them are in agreement about just how this is to be done. My pick for the best effort goes to Flex Alexander in the role of rap superstar Three-G’s, I like how he tries always to be unflappably cool even though his primary motivations are a throbbing sex drive and an inconvenient hygiene fetish. I also enjoyed David Koechner as the ill-fated plane’s co-pilot Rick – he of the indomitable sense of humor and strong poison resistance.

Anyway, Jones embraces the protective custody of FBI Agent Nelville Flynn, the Stock Samuel L. Jackson Foul-Mouthed Badass Role. And Flynn escorts Jones aboard a red-eye flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles, so Jones can testify against Kim. Kim has a fiendish and, frankly, fruit loops plan to see to it the plane never lands. And that’s where you come in.

I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but when people die painful and bloody deaths, it is not automatically funny or entertaining. Sometimes it’s scary, and you do make use of that, but sometimes it’s just uselessly sad and no fun at all, and you suffer from rather too much of that. You go out of your way to paint many of the characters as loathsome or stupid – or guilty of other high crimes like being overweight or having allergies. I think you’re trying to help us be okay with what happens when dozens of deadly snakes in the grips of a pheromone-induced rage are released mid-flight to slither hither and yon, chomping control wires and sensitive bodily organs as they become available. Sometimes I get a laugh out of it, but sometimes I liked the characters in spite of your efforts to pigeonhole them, and thus found the thorough witnessing of their execution cruel and without purpose.

I also can’t understand why you felt it necessary to devote long minutes of screen time to Flynn’s landbound partner in LA (Bobby Canavale). It does create space for Todd Louiso to tickle us a bit as an irritable brainy misfit of a snake expert, but what use trapping our characters in a plane if you’re going to let us get out for a breather so often? It thoroughly deflates the atmosphere of cuckoo mayhem everytime you and Jackson get close to locking it in

As much Samuel L. Jackson as you’ve got, there’s never enough – so much of what’s good about you flows from him. Like Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” in Pulp Fiction, his job is to shepherd the mentally-challenged through an odd crisis, and he knows just how to let his appreciation of its absurdity leak through from time to time. Watching him clamber across seat tops, zapping snakes with a taser, or hearing that his master survival plan is to stack luggage between the passengers and the snakes, is a joy because it embraces what possibilities the warped internal logic has made available.

See, most of the time, I don’t know if you’re trying to be smarter than you actually are or dumber. In moments like that, I no longer care. Like when, apropos of nothing, you introduce a professional kickboxer into the scenario. You and I both know how inspiringly batty that is, even if we can’t articulate it.

This letter is meant in kindness, Snakes on a Plane. I can tell you want to entertain us. Frequently you did. But you’re a product of a system that, when it wants to make good movies, makes bad ones. With you it tried to make an entertaining bad movie on purpose, and somehow missed again. Most cult films are accidents, and you’re a good test case for why. I’ll always remember you, but I'm afraid I'm Just Not That Into You.

Yours (on a plane),
Nicholas Thurkettle


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