Three decades after Star Wars opened, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t clear then that it was going to be a success. Despite the clarity of the concept and the title, it was a film in between the current thinking about outer space in cinema. Until that point, it was either deadly serious (1972’s relentlessly downbeat Silent Running) or impossible to take seriously (the rocket-to-Mars flicks of the ’50s and ’60s). Star Wars made investors nervous.
In 2006, no investors worried about Snakes on a Plane (though they may be second-guessing now that it made only $15.3 million on opening weekend, some $5 million under projections). Like Star Wars, its title is perfectly clear. In a business where every new blockbuster is billed as a unique “event” and none is, Snakes has managed, based on its peculiar moniker, to generate that rarest of commodities: real buzz. Yes, star Samuel Jackson contributed a lot to this, but his frequent interviews on the subject seem almost extraneous. The Internet has been buckling for months under the weight of Snakes on a Plane fan sites, parodies, message board threads, retouched publicity stills, the works. Here, fans and detractors alike fielded endless variants on the theme, faux-pitching movie ideas involving gerbils at the motherfucking bank, skunks in the motherfucking coffeehouse, and spiders on the motherfucking tour bus. One imitator, the much lower budget and reportedly much gorier Snakes on a Train, beat Snakes into distribution by a matter of days. Now that’s buzz.
If Snakes catapulted Jackson from mere movie star to folk hero, the reason is plain. He used Snakes‘ pre-release publicity to present himself as an outsider speaking truth to the Hollywood system. Although many of us are doubtless thankful for the truth he spoke — forcing the studio to retain the working title instead of substituting the much blander Pacific Air Flight 121 — the movie itself is conventional in inverse proportion to Jackson’s defense of it.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism. The foundation on which the movie builds its fun but unremarkable story — a drug kingpin trying to silence a witness en route to L.A. to testify smuggles poisonous snakes on his flight — is plenty off the wall. But claims that Snakes is destined for a legacy of midnight movie greatness along with Donnie Darko, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Night of the Living Dead are unwarranted. If the name has tapped into the zeitgeist, the movie appears not to be so lucky.
In fact, Rocky Horror is, in many ways, Snakes on a Plane‘s opposite. This consummately strange 1975 rock musical literally gave voice to a generation of people who felt they couldn’t find it other places: cross-dressers, the secretly gay and lesbian, and those who just more generally thought of themselves as noble misfits in an inequitable society. Not so Snakes, which works from a thoroughly conventional set of rules even as it makes a play of knowing how conventional these rules are. Thus we learn, for the nth time, that two-parent families are better at raising children (smeared with blood, villain Eddie Kim [Bryan Lawson] proclaims that, though reared by a single mom, he “didn’t turn out so bad,” even as he commits the brutal murder that sets the movie in motion) and that illicit sex will get you killed (the first victims of the pheromone-fueled snakes are a pair of pretty surfer teens who steal into the bathroom for a spliff and a quick screw; they seal their own fate when they pull the smoke detector out of the ceiling and so leave a hole for the snakes to slither through).
The movie is probably least like Rocky Horror when it gives us Ken (Bruce James), the extraordinarily effeminate male flight attendant who turns up only when the perceived need arises to parody those at variance with the conventionally masculine. You’ll find none of Dr. Frankenfurter’s empowering transgendered spectacle here and none of RHPS‘ surreal carnival, just the same old ideas.
True, even pointing this out seems curmudgeonly, that it misses the point that you make a deliberately laughable movie about vipers in a 747 precisely to earn license to traffic in broad stereotypes. I don’t necessarily disagree, either, but it’s also worth noting when these border on condescending. Fortunately, Ken is the worst of it and otherwise, much of Snakes is, if silly and sophomoric, often clever.
A combination police drama, disaster picture, and splatter movie, Snakes finds twists in exhausted scenarios, figuring out ways for stock characters to do and say surprising things. The surfer couple is targeted splatter movie-style as punishment for sexing it up, but also for tampering with the smoke detection device, a subtle visual gag you might miss unless you’re a frequent flyer. And Nelville (Jackson’s detective) engages in a test of wits with Kim and his henchmen while trying to sneak the witness, Sean (Nathan Jones), out of Honolulu, by setting up a decoy Lear jet. A step ahead, spies on the runway see which set of baggage is being sniffed by the most bomb-sniffing dogs before getting loaded onto which plane. Spycraft cops-and-robber stuff has a venerable history in movies (which is to say it’s old as dirt) but Snakes innovates by having the bad guys use the good guys’ security measures against them.
This instance isn’t unique; rather, putative security hinders rather than helps Nelville, Sean, and the huddled innocents aboard Flight 121 again and again. Hoping to arm the passengers against the marauding reptiles, Nelville asks heroic flight attendant Claire (Julianna Margulies) whether there’s any cutlery on board and learns that in the interest of passenger welfare, on-flight meals now only come with plastic sporks. This is where the movie’s at its best, when it interrogates the boundaries between fear and security. It’s also where the movie most acutely renounces clichés in favor of insight into our particular time and place. Nelville makes this clear when he phones deskbound fellow cop Harris (Bobby Cannavale) to tell him of the misfortune that’s befallen Flight 121. He begins, “You know all those security scenarios we ran? Well, I’m smack in the middle of one we didn’t think of.”
In this moment, Jackson’s job promoting the film dovetails with his character’s job, which is to catalog every conceivable permutation of menace that villains might visit on the unsuspecting. The criminals have to come up with an outlandish plot and the relationship between law and lawlessness thence devolves into one of mutual deterrence, theorization perpetuated into extremity. This underpins the innovation of Snakes, such as it is, against the entropic forces wearing away at the action genre as a whole. In today’s movie world, where generic possibilities seem exhausted and the interested viewer has already seen every premise that makes sense, the challenge is to create alibis for premises that don’t. Meanwhile, in real America — plagued by its overwrought, virtually utopian campaign to ensure absolute safety — the possible sources of danger will only grow more elaborate.