After missing the film in its initial run, I finally caught up with Snakes On A Plane last night as the back half of a double feature at Brew & View here in Chicago. It seemed to me essential to see the film with an audience while at least partially intoxicated, so it was the ideal setting. (Though it should be noted that The Vic, which functions first as a concert venue, doesn’t seem interested in solving even the simplest engineering problems. When a movie is shot in CinemaScope, the sides of the picture simply spill out onto the curtains, which themselves are obscured by the speakers responsible for the garbled sound. If those skinflints would bother hiring an engineer for even a day, most of their presentation problems would be solved.)
Before I get into the movie itself, a question: How are cult movies born? Can such things be forced or are audiences for future midnight movies cultivated by a small but passionate few who rally around a quirky curiosity? As you can probably discern from the rhetorical nature of that question, I’d say the latter. To me, whenever a movie seems specifically tailored to a midnight crowd, it feels forced and unearned, perhaps because the road to becoming a cult classic is often paved with hardship and tears. If you look at recent favorites like Office Space or Donnie Darko, these movies were largely poo-poohed by a wrong-headed critical establishment and bombed horribly before finally picking up steam long after they’d ended their runs. Granted, there are some filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or (occasionally) Robert Rodriguez whose work is immediately embraced with open arms by a cult audience—and surely, their forthcoming Grindhouse will be an example of a successful cult movie by design—but they earned that status with Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi, respectively.
In light of all that, Snakes On A Plane strikes me as a special case, because everything happened in reverse. It was a cult movie that lost its cult, something that flowered in people’s imaginations before it came out and withered the moment the film itself was run through a projector. I’d rather not go too much into why the movie failed to gain much traction outside the Internet, because that post-mortem has already been written a thousand times over. (Okay, I will say that it was a mistake for New Line to sit on the film all summer long. It’s a little like that episode of The Simpsons when Homer calls his barbershop quartet the Be Sharps—a name that sounds clever at first and more annoying every time you hear it. The hype curdled into anti-hype a good month before release.) But the reverse-engineering that took place in shaping the film for a cult audience has made for one awkward piece of work—part cheesy Airport ‘77-style disaster-movie, part straight-to-video thriller, part Internet discussion board come to life.
When I first heard about Snakes On A Plane, I was encouraged by the news that David Ellis was hired to direct. Ellis made Cellular, an underrated Phone Booth-like thriller (also scripted by Larry Cohen) that was a good example of a tight, no-frills genre movie done right. Having a solid craftsman supporting a premise as wacky as S.O.A.P.’s seemed like a sound decision, because at least it would have a narrative backbone. But oh how wrong I was: When the movie isn’t toiling over perfunctory, Z-grade plotting—much of it entertainingly junky, but still—it’s coughing up some of the most incoherent action sequences this side of a Michael Bay movie. When the snakes attack, it’s total chaos. Granted, a bunch of pheromone-buzzed poisonous snakes from seven continents behave in erratic ways, but Ellis doesn’t bother orienting the viewer; he just lets fly with the random biting, occasionally presaged by a little green-tinted SnakeVision. The film also makes the curious mistake of relegating Samuel L. Jackson to the sidelines in order to spend more time with its menagerie of walking disaster-movie clichés. (Some of whom are admittedly amusing, like the two young brothers on their first plane ride together or the honeymooner with a fear of flying.) And why in the world would the filmmakers put a champion kickboxer on board and never find use for his feet of fury? (A friend noted that he was probably added as a positive Asian character to counteract the evil Asians who planted the snakes, which sounds about right.)
In spite of its schlocky-ness, there are moments of clarity in the mess that suggest an entertaining movie was just a rewrite and a new director away. Oddly enough, the film could stand to be more ludicrous: When the bad guy claims that planting the snakes on the plane was his only option, I wish we could have heard a rundown of the rejected options. Or perhaps the Airport ’77 cast should have been nudged entirely into Airplane! territory, and the film could have worked as flat-out comedy, instead of an awkward camp horror hybrid. I will say this: For the entire running time, everyone in the audience (myself included) was just salivating in anticipation of Jackson’s big line. I kept thinking, “Boy, if I were Samuel L. Jackson, I’d be feeling a bit fatigued right now” or “Gee, he sure looks tuckered out.” And when the line finally dropped, the eruption of applause almost redeemed the whole experience.
Does one line a midnight movie make? Surprisingly close, but no cigar.