Saturday, August 19, 2006

"It's the snakes!": Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane, improbably, works. It's a good bad movie, which overcomes many, many flaws to become exactly what every ironic Internet hipster wanted it to be: a movie about snakes invading a plane and being beaten back by Samuel L. Jackson, who makes a convincing case for the power of star charisma.

The movie, however, is probably only as good as the audience you see it with. In recent years, how easy has it become to forget the theatrical experience, to sequester oneself at home with loved ones and pop in something by Sturges or Bergman, rather than brave the crowds of mouthbreathing teenagers at the cineplex? Snakes on a Plane erases all of that. The movie IS the audience. The whole experience is less about watching snakes take over a plane and more about rediscovering just how much fun it can be to shout catcalls at the screen, or applaud a profane line of dialogue, delivered just so.

The story of Snakes on a Plane is all there in the title, and yet, I was impressed by how the screenwriters managed to come up with every possible snake-y scenario available to them and then invent a third act that creates several NEW menaces (because, really, once you've unleashed that giant boa constrictor on the plane, there's nowhere else to go with the snakes). The snakes latch on to every possible part of the human anatomy, including the sensitive ones, and the result is a great burst of catharsis from a giving audience, the feeling of a gathering collective saying, "Oh, they won't go. . .THEY DID!"

Really, this movie shouldn't work as well as it does. Director David Ellis seems to think the premise will do most of the work for him, as he lets several sequences sit lazily about, doing nothing (Peter Berg, who made one of the great good bad movies of recent years -- The Rundown -- would have been an inspired choice if he would actually direct this material). The tone of the piece varies from actor to actor, too. The movie that Jackson and a few of the other actors (Kenan Thompson and Rachel Blanchard in particular) seem to be in is the perfect version of Snakes, the one that was both completely awful and completely wonderful. For the most part, these actors are able to save the bits that lag, but there's an overall feeling of trying too hard in places.

Which brings me to the structural problem, which is that the latter half of act two sort of sags. The initial burst of snake frenzy, accompanied by the masks popping out of the overhead compartments and snakes coming with them, is pitch perfect, slamming scares, laughs and action beats into each other until the audience is wound up to a giddy high. It may have been impossible to follow that up, but everything from that point on sort of slowly sags, even if individual lines or scares work. Once Jackson utters the famous line that was inserted into the film to placate fans, however, the movie is mostly back on track and coming in for a landing, even with a completely bizarre ending that I have to assume was a joke (at least, I hope it was).

The movie, oddly, that it made me think of was Speed, which had a similarly basic premise, though much better direction, writing and editing (which gave the movie that forward momentum that didn't make you question a bus' ability to leap over an open pit). This, like Speed, eschews logic in favor of getting what the audience wants to see (in this case, snakes) out there, even if the first half hour is disappointingly snake-less (I respect trying to set up the characters and all, but since they're all just cliches anyway, it could have been done more elegantly). Still, Speed, right down to a few of the relationship beats at the very end.

It's a hard thing, making a good bad movie. Snakes on a Plane comes close enough to garner a wholehearted recommendation, especially if you see it with an audience full of people ready to giggle and squirm and scream. It's the sort of thing where you know what you're seeing isn't even remotely close to good art, but it's so enjoyable and it goes down so easily that you just don't care. (There's a beat toward the end where something awful happens, and a random extra yells, "It's the snakes!" that was just so much like something that would get riffed on on the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000, that I laughed for far longer than absolutely necessary.)

But don't wait for DVD. If you're going to see Snakes, see it this weekend, with the aforementioned audience because it's not a movie for a pristine viewing environment and careful contemplation. Snakes on a Plane is a movie for loud laughter and shouting with your friends at the screen and tossing popcorn at each other.

And God bless it for reminding us just how much fun that can be.

1 comment:

gail said...

Despite your review indicating that this movie could be possibly, remotely entertaining, I will not go to see it. I also will not allow it to be in my house when it comes out on DVD. It would not make a good Christmas present!!!!!

Gail