Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Review: Snakes On A Plane (2006)

Snakes On A Plane
97 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Snakes On A Plane
may be the first strike in a somewhat troubling new concept. For the last six months, there has been a homegrown Internet campaign of excitement based around this film, primarily due to the delightfully blunt title and the idea of Samuel L. Jackson doing his bad-ass shtick in a B-movie popcorn film. This is all fine and good, as its always nice when a film catches heat purely through word of mouth and ground-level excitement. However, this is the first case I can recall of filmmakers doing reshoots and adding in extra material based on the wanting of online fans and geeks who haven't even seen the film. Alas, it is those very additions that undermine an otherwise sleek and worthwhile B-horror thriller. Be careful what you wish for.

Agent Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson, playing it completely straight save for fan-requested bits) is entrusted with a witness (Nathan Phillips) against ruthless mob boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Onboard a flight to the trial, Jackson, his witness, and a whole variety of updated disaster movie clichés (the Paris Hilton-wannabee, the gangsta rapper and his posse, the twins flying alone for the first time, the young mother, the snotty foreigner, the flight attendant who turned down early retirement) discover that they are in the most unusual of disaster scenarios. Kim has smuggled a whole planeload of very poisonous snakes on board, in the hopes of creating enough carnage to crash the plane.

The next two acts become a race to destroy the snakes and land the plane before those who have been bitten succumb. It's almost a remake of Zero Hour, the disaster movie that inspired Airplane!. Many scenes feel like subtle homage to Airplane!. On its face, its a fun, exciting, and relatively entertaining ride. Scenes on the ground, with a levelheaded and amusingly droll snake expert working with the FBI to try to solve the situation, are great fun and the alleged science is convincing enough to be enjoyed. The snakes attack with fury, picking off quite a few passengers (at one point someone claims that 50 people have already died, but that seems a bit high based on what we've seen). As with most disaster movies, some passengers and crew unfairly die and others unfairly live. With a couple exceptions (blame the geeks), the violence is not played for laughs. The acting is as good as it needs to be, and Nathan Phillips provides a worthwhile portrayal of a decent guy trying to do the right thing. His guilt and helplessness at the situation he indirectly caused is surprisingly poignant.

I have just described the movie as it was originally intended. However, thanks to the drumbeats of armchair filmmakers, the film was altered to give it a higher 'cool quotient'. Now, in a relatively serious thriller, we have comic scenes of gratuitous nudity, comic scenes of 'funny' violence (the first two snake attacks were reshot to make the teen boys scream 'cool!'), and lots of gratuitous profanity. The worst example of this is the most famous. At the request of these geeks, we have a scene towards the finale where Sam Jackson, completely out of character, blatantly on a different set, and not looking at anyone, screams that hes "tired of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" Aside from the fact that this moment is completely out of character and forced, the obviousness of the insert (think Raymond Burr in Godzilla) completely takes you out of the film. The 'amped-up' film is still not terribly gory or bloody; so don't expect a gore fest (The Descent will provide that, and it will scare the crap out of you too).

What we have is a relatively good thriller, which is harmed by the studio caving in to their worst instincts to appease the lowest denominator of geek. Hopefully this is a one-time deal and not the start of a disturbing trend. Movies should be made by filmmakers and digested by moviegoers. If fans don't like George Lucas changing his own movies in any way he pleases, then they have the right not to buy Star Wars merchandise. This absurd and scary concept of fan ownership can only result in more crass, dumber, sillier film making. Prophets of doom aside, most of Snakes On A Plane is a worthwhile B-movie thriller with fun characters, decent production values, and a worthwhile plot to support its initial concept. It's worth seeing in its present form, but, if given the eventual choice, I'll buy the original PG-13 version.

Grade: B-

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