Snakes on a Plane


Kirk Honeycutt
Real life already has stolen the thunder from this movie's title. We now know that water bottles and hair gel can be much more dangerous on planes. But snakes on planes, as this film so abundantly illustrates, can ruin your flight in so many ways. Thanks to the Internet and continual media attention, many of those ways already are well known. The minute an amorous couple slip into the coach cabin toilet, the giggles begin: We know what's going to happen to yooo-uuu! A guy eases into another toilet to take a leak and glances casually away. Wrong move, buddy!

So in the crudest terms, "Snakes on a Plane" delivers on its promise. This is a coolly efficient, tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy about poisonous snakes on a rampage at 30,000 feet. The snakes sink their fangs into a tongue, eye, penis, breast and ass. A boa even tries to swallow a man. A very large man. You'll never complain about those in-flight meals again. Things could be so much worse.

Opening weekend will, of course, be huge. Because the movie isn't nearly the rancid snake oil you might expect from New Line's 'fraidy cat no-press-screenings policy, the phenomenon may continue for several weeks. Yes, "Snakes" does have legs.

The setup: A surfer dude (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a brutal murder by a vicious Hawaiian crime boss. So an FBI super agent (Samuel L. Jackson) must safely escort him from Honolulu to Los Angeles to testify against the hood. The crime boss has enough contacts in airport operations, security and the airlines to smuggle aboard hundreds of deadly snakes into the plane's cargo hold. Their release is perfectly timed for the midway point between Hawaii and the mainland.

In the time-honored tradition of disaster movies, you watch the passengers embark and try to pick out the potential victims. A mother with a baby. No way she doesn't survive. A hot girl with Chihuahua. That dog is snake food. A tipsy old lady, a guy who hates to fly and a guy who hates other people who fly. Don't like their chances. The rap star and his overweight bodyguards could go either way. And Julianna Margulies, as a flight attendant in the noble tradition of Karen Black in "Airport 1975," will most certainly team with Jackson to save the day.

Director David R. Ellis and writers John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez (working from a story by David Dalessandro and Heffernan) operate on a meticulous timetable. The first snake sighting happens a mere 23 minutes into the movie. The two toilet attacks serve as hors d'oeuvres, so to speak. All hell breaks loose at the 49-minute mark. Did I mention the electrical storm outside and the death of a pilot?

Jackson (in a take-charge performance) gets passengers to move to the front of the plane. He then creates a temporary barrier between them and the snakes by piling up carry-on luggage -- you know, those things you can't carry on anymore. The action now is fast and furious, but Trevor Rabin's music cues and Howard E. Smith's editing never miss a beat, while resourceful cinematographer Adam Greenberg just loves big close-ups of snake heads. Those snake point-of-view shots of wiggly targets are a nice touch, too. But how come no one thought to do this thing in 3-D?

The film is replete with great cornball one-liners, though it's not clear if credit should go to the writers or Internet contributions: A pilot explains that if snakes get into sensitive areas in the plane's circuitry, "this bird goes down faster than a Thai hooker." A snake expert on the ground declares, "Time is tissue." And, of course, Jackson has the already famous line, "I want these motherfuckin' snakes off this motherfuckin' plane!"

It is cathartic fun to confront those twin fears of flying and of snakes. This represents a kind of entertainment genius along the lines of fun houses, roller coasters and tricks those Thai hookers perform with razor blades and soda bottles in Bangkok sex shows. This should never be confused, however, with such genuine horror as "Psycho," "Alien" and "The Exorcist."

New Line Cinema
A Mutual Film Company production
Director: David R. Ellis
Writers: John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez
Story by: David Dalessandro, John Heffernan
Producers: Gary Levinsohn, Don Granger, Craig Berenson
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, George Waud, Justis Greene
Director of photography: Adam Greenberg
Production designer: Jaymes Hinkle
Music: Trevor Rabin
Costumes: Karen Matthews
Editor: Howard E. Smith.
Neville Flynn: Samuel L. Jackson
Claire Miller: Julianne Margulies
Sean Jones: Nathan Phillips
Mercedes: Rachel Blanchard
Three G's: Flex Alexander
Troy: Kenan Thompson
Big LeRoy: Keith (Blackman) Dallas
MPAA rating: R
Running time -- 105 minutes