Fang-Filled Flight

'Snakes on a Plane' paradoxically honors its audience's intelligence by being really stupid

When I saw that this week's cinematic offering would be a film entitled Snakes on a Plane, I assumed, as most people of breeding would, that the name was a metaphor for the difficulties of "taking off" in one's life while in the presence of those who would offer the apple of temptation.

Indeed, I couldn't have been more incorrect! In a shocking departure from such films as Inherit the Wind, Hour of the Wolf and Charlie's Angels, this movie eschews the modern mania for metaphor and metonymy and daringly adopts a literalist approach to its titling, offering (and here I dare say I might be "spoiling" an important point of plot and story!) more than one snake, and at least one plane, as central elements to its tale of terror and heroism.

There is nothing in the film's opening sequence to indicate this level of honesty and immediacy: While the words "Snakes," "on," "a" and "Plane" appear on the screen, we are treated to scenes of a young man enjoying a ride on one of those two-wheeled motor-powered vehicles that are so popular with drug-dealing outlaws and impotent, middle-aged men.

But then! A gruesome murder is witnessed by this young fellow, and he is swept up into scenes of action and suspense!

Now a witness to an important crime, he is taken into the protection of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the chief law-enforcement agency of the United States government, no less!) and will be flown from his home in peaceful, snake-free Hawaii to the notoriously snake-infested county of Los Angeles.

While airborne and under that form of custody known as "protective," he is shocked to find that ... well, I don't want to ruin the surprise. But let's just say that there might be some ake-snays on his ane-play!

The part of the plane is played by a Boeing 747, one of the great planes of 20th century cinema. With its cinematic heyday 20 years ago in such films as Airport 75 and Airport 77, the 747 hasn't received much work lately due to the preponderance of low-flying French aircraft cluttering our skies with their stink of fine wine and unemployment. But no other plane could play the title role in Snakes on a Plane, because no other plane has such a commodious upper deck to whence one could escape were, say, and I speak hypothetically here, a large number of snakes to attack the coach-class passengers.

Also starring in this film is Mr. Samuel (L.) Jackson, who reprises his role from virtually ever other film he's made by playing a strong-willed individual who capably rises to a challenge while nonetheless retaining colorful speech habits.

Mr. Jackson understands exactly the sort of movie he's in, and gives what can only be described as the perfect performance. For a film like Snakes on a Plane to work, it has to look as though it takes itself seriously, while at the same time providing repeated comic relief through its slavish adoption of genre elements. In keeping with this convention, each character is introduced with a one- or two-sentence bit of exposition that deftly illustrates their one- or two-sentence character. The stewardess who is quitting to become a lawyer is intro'd with, "Any requests for your final flight?" The two children traveling alone are handed off with a "My wife is meeting them in L.A." The germ-phobic rap star is seen signing autographs and then immediately dousing himself with antiseptic hand gel. Other characters are defined by, "You're the kick-boxing champion of Hawaii," "I'm afraid of flying!" "How dare you stick me in coach class!" and so forth.

And yet, each of them acts as though they are in a real movie, and not a Mad TV parody of a movie. Thank goodness! Were the film to ever wink at the audience, Snakes on a Plane would be a dim-witted exercise suitable only for those who think Platoon is a drama and Canada is a country.

Such people would fail to see the inherent humor in a snake fastening itself onto a man's genitalia or woman's mammaries; they would be unable to understand why it is that Mr. Jackson must utter the line, "Enough is enough! I've had it with these (gol-darned) snakes on this (gosh-darned) plane!" They would not thrill as the kick-boxing champion of Hawaii kick-boxes a snake into submission. They would never see the depth of genius in having a distant, background voice shout "snakes!" at an irrelevant moment.

But such people are not the audience for Snakes on a Plane. That audience, dear reader, is you: those sophisticated enough to read an alternative newsweekly. Those swift enough to see that behind the shallowness of contemporary cinema is nothing but more shallowness. Those capable of sensing irony even when it's presented in the form of a mock-1970s disaster film featuring snakes, a plane and the prepositional construction "on a."

So, yes, Snakes on a Plane lives up to its title. In fact, it asymptotically approaches the limit of how good a movie called Snakes on a Plane could possibly be. While, obviously, such a film cannot be "great," it can be tremendously entertaining. If everything lived up to its hype as well as Snakes did, we'd be watching our garland-festooned soldiers hugging infants while democracy broke out like a pox in the Middle East and everyone rode their Segway scooters to Sean and Madonna's 20th wedding anniversary. That not being the case, at least we can take solace in a film whose stupidity is not an insult to its audience's intelligence, but rather a salute to it.

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