Fly the slithery skies

Times Staff Writer

“Snakes on a Plane” is many things. A great summer catch phrase. A possible lyric in a future Alanis Morissette song (“It’s like snay-ee-akes, on a pla-a-ane ...”). A potentially big step toward the total elimination of the creative middleman in mainstream entertainment. A high school prank perpetrated on a mass scale.

By now, everybody has heard the story about how the title got a lot of early attention online, which naturally led to riffing, which led an excited New Line to shoot additional scenes in order to integrate fans’ suggestions. So, Samuel L. Jackson dutifully bellows the now official refrain of the summer, “I’ve had it with these %#@*&{circ}% snakes on this %#@*&{circ}% plane!” near the end of the movie, and other latter additions are clearly identifiable. There’s a scene in which a horny couple gets it on in the bathroom. (Snake on a mammary.) A scene in which a urinating man gets a nasty surprise. (Snake on a vas deferens.) A scene in which a snake crawls up the wrong end of a comically overweight lady. (Snake in a bottom.) Snakes, at least the snakes in this movie, love all manner of human orifices. They will plunge right through your eyeball if given half the chance.

The snakes on this plane are also very media savvy, and it’s quite possible they’ve attended a Robert McKee screenwriting seminar or two. They attack strictly according to the rules of Hollywood. They kill the mean, anti-American British businessman but spare the hot madonna and child. They let the two sexy stewardesses live but kill the unattractive-but-noble one. (Snakes on a Shelley Winters character.) Progressive of them, they don’t kill a black man, though they do bite one in the butt. (He declines venom extraction from an ambiguously gay steward.) They bite a kid named Tommy, but it’s just a nibble.


The movie begins in Hawaii, where a surfer dude named Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) accidentally witnesses the brutal murder of a Los Angeles prosecutor by a vicious mobster named Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Sean is rescued from reprisal by agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson) and is flown to L.A. to serve as a witness. (“Last week, I was planning a surfing trip to Bali,” Sean says. “But now you make it sound like I got no choices!”) That’s correct, son, and soon you’ll have even fewer choices because Kim has managed to smuggle a huge crate full of poisonous snakes into the cargo hold (which should not be construed by the public as permission to pack the tweezers).

For a vicious mobster, Kim has a florid imagination. Why bother with explosive substances (liquids on a plane) when you can obtain a large quantity of international poisonous reptiles from a kooky survivalist in the desert and then spray the passengers’ welcome leis with snake pheromone, which drives them wild, and not in a good way. It’s foolproof! Nobody on board is any the wiser for a good 30 minutes, giving us ample time to get to know the characters. There’s a germ-phobic rap star played by Flex Alexander, his sulky entourage, a chirpy rich girl (Rachel Blanchard) with a Chihuahua and the aforementioned businessman. These are the first-class passengers, forced to fly coach so that Sean might enjoy Flynn’s one-on-one protection. (Snakes on a refund.) Julianna Margulies plays a flight attendant on her last tour of duty, bravely taking on testy passengers and cobras while making time to engage in some girlish flirting with Jackson’s character. She is quite a woman, and one sincerely hopes she cashed quite a paycheck.

But the real stars of the movie are the snakes, whose point of view we witness sporadically through a green-tinted snake-eye-cam. (Snakes wear some very low-tech night vision goggles, apparently, and one sincerely hopes the troops in Iraq are better equipped.) While the snakes seem very keen to explore every crevice of humanity, director David R. Ellis and writers John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez and David Dalessandro are content to skim along the surface of ‘70s disaster flicks and toss in sundry audience suggestions. The result is not quite a horror movie (too cheerful and can-do) or a thriller (too cheerful and stupid), nor does it parody itself or take itself seriously, thereby canceling out the camp factor. It’s more like an improv sketch at 30,000 feet.

Because there were no advance critics screenings, I went to see “Snakes on a Plane” in Glendale last night thinking that’s where all the regular people would go, but it turns out they went to the Grove instead. Over there, they had overflow. And at the premiere, according to sources, the special guests went wild. But in Glendale, there were maybe 50 people in the theater, roughly five of them over the age of 20. They were moderately lively, laughing at all the serious parts and one or two of them occasionally yelling “snakes!” when things started to get repetitive. It’s always hard to get a read on snorting, though, especially during a movie that sells itself on being patently ludicrous. But, hey. Snakes! Snakes on a plane! %#@*&{circ}% snakes on a %#@*&{circ}% plane! Look over there! Snakes!

One question lingers, for me at least. When “fans” respond to an unabashedly silly title like “Snakes on a Plane” and start riffing on it, how seriously do they mean for their suggestions to be taken? For some reason, the whole thing makes me think of what sometimes happens in high schools, when popular bullies whisper not-very-nice suggestions into the eager ears of class dorks. I wouldn’t want to insinuate that this is what’s happened here, of course, but the possibilities are exciting. What could we get Tom Cruise to say? Send suggestions to his people via MySpace.


“Snakes on a Plane”

MPAA rating: R for language, a scene of sexuality and drug use, and intense sequences of terror and violence


A New Line Cinema release. Director David R. Ellis. Screenplay John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez. Story David Dallesandro, Heffernan. Producers Gary Levinsohn, Don Granger, Craig Berenson. Director of photography Adam Greenberg. Editor Howard E. Smith. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

In general release.