Snakes on a Plane

I saw this today, because I was sure they would mess it up and I wanted to see how. I have to say, I was wrong. IMHO, they nailed this movie. It’s exactly what the title says it is: pure mindless action and entertainment.

Aside from following Jeffrey Rowland’s Overcompensating, I was pretty isolated from the hype over the film, other than that vague buzz that one can hear whenever something gets hold of the Internet. As such I didn’t realize how much of a slasher movie it was going to me. Once calibrated, though I was fine.

Of course it’s not a good movie, in any kind of sense but being a good slasher/shoot-em up movie. That’s to say that if you’re a sort of geeky 16-year-old-boy, this is your movie. Other than a few slaps at the really amazingly bad aviation references, I won’t even poke holes at the many errors in the movie, except to say that the characters are one-dimensional, the physics are unreasonable, continuity is questionable, and believability is right out. But, unless you’re a movie critic (who has to look for that stuff), looking for any of that in this movie means that you really have a problem connecting with your culture. Snakes on a Plane is going to be sophomoric by definition.

As sophomoric ideas go, the idea is killer. The slasher formula is basically creepie crawlies (or a maniac with a chainsaw and supernatural determination or powers) locked in an enclosed place, eating their way through a crowd of bystanders while a lone hero helps the survivors band together to get out alive. Once you recognize this, snakes and an airplane are such good choices it’s hard to go wrong. Then picking Samuel L. Jackson to be your hero, well, it’s tough to do better there, too. You’ve basically laid out your perfect slasher film (though it’s not far from your perfect action film – substitute terrorists for snakes and you’ve got Die Hard).

A specification for a movie’s not a movie, though, and many great ideas have gone awry. As John Landis said to the AV Club, “people don’t understand this: Ideas are important, but they’re not essential. What’s essential and important is the execution of the idea.” Many if not most really horrible movies, even the horrible sophomoric ones that need barely rise to 16-year-old notions of quality, sound great on paper. The ultimate example of this for me is Revenge of the Sith, which one really shouldn’t be able to screw up as badly is it was. More than anything else, Sith got me to see Snakes, just to see if Hollywood can hit even that low target.

As an aside, the reverse can happen: a weird or lousy idea can be turned into a great movie by suberb execution. I have a friend who heard the pitch for Speed as it was being filmed, and never was able to discuss the movie without giggling. It’s an action movie about high-speed thrills set on a bus. But it works fine because of the execution.

So, if you believe me that character development isn’t important and plausibility doesn’t matter, what’s there to execute? The heart of the slasher movie is to make things creepy and frightening while drawing the watcher into the struggle for survival. Also, there are a lot of genre conventions to play to and riff off, not the least of which is the implausible but excruciatingly painful execution of various victims. None of this could really be done better. The CGI snakes are creepy enough to frighten, but they don’t look entirely real; the situations are nail-biting enough, and the shocks effective enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, and there are many moments of uneasy laughter to hide a cringe – even when you know that the cringe-causer is about as plausible as a Ralph Nader presidency. Excellent job.

I’m not a 16-year-old boy anymore, though I still had a good time. I actually found some of the violence and gross-outs, well, violent and gross. There were many times where I realized that I would have laughed at something as a kid, but it was unnerving to me as an adult. And I’m sure that the creators of Snakes expected the laugh and got it from their audience. It’s strange to realize something about yourself from Snakes on a Plane, but there it is.

Can’t recommend it to everyone, but 16-year-old boys who think it sounds good will love it.

Comments are closed.