"Do as I say, and you live."
--Samuel L. Jackson
I mean, it's "Snakes on a Plane," for crying out loud. It ain't "Hamlet" or "Long Day's Journey into Night." Anybody who takes seriously a movie called "Snakes on a Plane" is seriously mis-taken, even if the movie is in high definition.
The title is undoubtedly the best part of the picture, and it's unquestionably what helped promote the film months before its release. Indeed, there hasn't been a film in recent memory, short of "Casino Royale" with its new Bond, that generated as much buzz as this one, thanks largely to the Internet. If the film was a disappointment, you can hardly blame the movie itself. Blame the hype. People showed up in legions for the film's opening; but after a few nights, the fun was over, and the movie wound up barely earning back its productions costs.
So, what do you mean, What's it about? It's about snakes on a plane, of course. Hundreds of them and only Samuel L. Jackson standing in their way. Yeah, I know; it's an unfair fight. What chance do 800 poisonous snakes have against Samuel L. Jackson? Now, if this were a film in which Jackson was only playing a supporting or cameo role, as he did in "Deep Blue Sea," then anything could happen. But this is a starring vehicle for the actor, so we know the outcome in advance.
Which is probably the film's major shortcoming. It isn't the preposterousness of the idea that anybody could smuggle hundreds of poisonous snakes aboard an airplane in boxes of Hawaiian leis, or that one man could almost single-handedly combat them. It's that all of the characters, including Jackson's FBI agent Neville Flynn (a wonderful old-timey movie name if ever there was one), are cardboard cutouts, one-dimensional personages with no backgrounds and virtually no personalities. The less we know about a movie's characters, the less we care about them, and, thus, the less tension or suspense the movie creates. This film produces practically nothing in these departments, relying, instead, on occasional jolts and shocks. It's like a roller-coaster: You know exactly how it's going to turn out; it's the ride that counts.
Anyway, Jackson is intrepid agent Flynn, assigned to fly a federally protected witness, Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips), from Hawaii to Los Angeles to testify against a big-time mobster, Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). The baddie has decided Jones should not testify against him, and to ensure that he doesn't, he's rigged up the airplane with snakes to bring it down. The snakes are of all varieties with only one thing in common: They are all deadly. Kim's men have drugged the snakes so they're asleep when smuggled aboard the plane hidden. Then, at a predetermined hour, pheromone sprays go off in the boxes, which excite the slithering serpents into a frenzy and all hell breaks loose. Apparently, the snakes pass inspection unnoticed going onto the airplane because they are cold blooded. Who'da guessed?
The heroes, passengers, and villains are the typical stereotypes you'd expect to find in a straightforward action flick. Flynn is a divorced guy whose job comes first, who isn't afraid to put his life on the line on a daily basis, whose word is absolute, and whose derring-do is beyond reproach. He's the guy you want on your side in a crisis but who doesn't make the most convivial seatmate on a long plane ride. The witness, Jones, is a pleasant young cypher, nothing more. Then, there are the attractive flight attendants (Julianna Margulies chief among them), the pretty girl with the dog (Rachel Blanchard), the hip-hop star (Flex Alexander), the nervous flyer, the snobby crank, two children traveling solo, a pair of newlyweds, a kickboxer (a kickboxer?), etc. They are all remarkably superficial, and most of them are simply in the picture to die or be rescued, it doesn't matter which one. As with any B-grade thriller, beyond the hero, the cast is mainly there for the audience to guess who will die first.
The snakes snap to attention about a third of the way into the film, so you have to wait a bit for things to happen. After that, before you can say "sidewinder," we get not only clichés on a plane but sex on a plane and mayhem on a plane, with snakes slithering out of every nook and cranny. How the snakes maneuvered all over the plane and then attacked simultaneously is a question up for grabs. There are snakes jumping out everywhere; snakes crawling up women's dresses and men's pants; and snakes ripping out eyeballs. But snakes in the toilets is probably my favorite. Do watch where you go, or.... I don't even want to think about it.
Still and all, the film feels oddly flat, generating more curiosity and laughter than actual thrills. It's more like "Oh, oh, watch out" or "yuck, that's gross" than it is terrorizing. And, coincidentally, just as the snakes go on their rampage, a storm erupts outside the plane, providing thunder and lightning as a backdrop to the rest of the havoc. I fully expected to see an invasion of space aliens next or maybe Christopher Lee skulking about with fangs at the ready.
I dunno. The film never takes itself too seriously, yet I kept imagining the Zucker brothers doing it. Could there be a sillier premise for a movie than snakes on crack? Where are Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, or Lloyd Bridges when you need them? Poor Samuel L. Jackson gets rather lost toward the middle of the film, gone missing in all the excitement, but he returns in good form toward the end. Meanwhile, director David R. Ellis ("Final Destination 2," "Cellular") makes the most of his live and CGI-animated reptiles and at least keeps our attention for part of the film's running time. It's not a lot, but it's better than most such efforts in the genre.
The high-definition VC-1 reproduction, conveyed via a single-layer BD25, looks good most of the time, preserving the film's original widescreen aspect ratio, 2.40:1. The colors in the beginning, during the Hawaii scenes, fairly pop off the screen. They are bright and a little glossy but wonderfully vivid. During most the film, though, we are on board the plane, where the picture quality looks more ordinary. Definition varies from excellent to very slightly gritty, and occasionally a minor veiling covers the image. Still, it's a big step above the standard-definition transfer I watched a few years earlier.
The audio engineers at New Line Home Entertainment provide lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and regular Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. I found the TrueHD quite satisfying. However, you do have to be patient for the snakes and the sounds to get going; once they take off, they both go with a vengeance. There is a very wide dynamic range and a strong sonic impact; some impressive rear-channel effects, especially during the storm sequence; and a thumping good bass. The TrueHD soundtrack is smoother and firmer than the lossy Dolby Digital, and it nicely conveys the turbulence inside as well as outside the plane, giving your audio system a decent workout.
The folks at New Line carry over the extras from the standard-def disc, including a surprisingly healthy assortment, several of them now in high definition. Counting down, there's an audio commentary with star Samuel L. Jackson, director David R. Ellis, producer Craig Berenson, associate producer Tawny Ellis, VFX supervisor Erik Henry, and 2nd unit director Freddie Hice. After that, there are ten deleted and extended scenes, about ten minutes in all, with optional filmmaker commentary. Then there's a gag reel, about four-and-a-half minutes. And there are four featurettes: "Pure Venom, the Making of Snakes on a Plane" (HD), about eighteen minutes of behind-the-scenes material; "Meet the Reptiles," about twelve minutes with the snake handlers; "Snakes on a Blog" (HD), about ten minutes behind the Internet buzz; and "Visual Effects," about five minutes with the visual effects people. After that, there's a music video, "Snakes on a Plane: Bring It" (HD), with Cobra Starship, the same video that plays during the film's closing credits; and there's a behind-the-scenes segment on making the music video.
Things wind down with eighteen scene selections; three theatrical trailers; five TV spots; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Alfred Hitchcock said the reason his shower scene in "Psycho" was so successful was that, besides the brilliant editing and music, it placed the victim in so vulnerable a position--naked, confined, helpless, with no way of protecting herself. One could say much the same of "Snakes on a Plane." To the extent the movie works, it's because it confines its victims to a relatively helpless situation, with no relief at hand but Samuel L. Jackson. Well, with Jackson around, you don't need much else. Besides, with such a great title, you could forgive the film almost anything.