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Snakes On My Brain

August 20th, 2006

Snakes On A Plane was a lackluster contender in this weekend’s box office rumble, finishing second to the disappointing but unstoppable comedy Talladega Nights. It appears that Internet hype still isn’t all that.

I feel a little bit sorry for Samuel L. Jackson. Some actors show disdain in promoting their films, but not Sam. His enthusiasm for Snakes was infectious, and I can’t help but think that a $14 million opening weekend must sting. Still, when he goes to bed on Sunday night, he can take solace in the fact that he remains Samuel L. Jackson, and that’s more than good enough.

What of the movie itself? Vic and I saw it Saturday afternoon with our friends Topher and Lesley, and damned if the four of us didn’t have a great time. We laughed at the cliches, clutched each other (sorry, Topher) during the reptile attacks and tried to scare our snakeophobic wives.

Snakes wasn’t art, but it was the most fun I’ve had at the theater in this torpid summer season. It provided just what it promised: scares, laughs and lots of motherfucking snakes.

The legendary director Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between surprise and suspense. Surprise is when a bomb goes off under a table. Suspense is when we can see the bomb under the table but don’t know when or if it will explode. Snakes says “screw that” and tosses the bomb at your head. I felt that the weaker scenes were those intended to be tension-builders, such as a would-be harrowing trip into the plane’s cargo hold. The slithery stars were at their best when they simply went for the throat (or the eyeball) and the high point of the flick was the moment when the killer reptiles first descended en masse upon their screaming victims.

Snakes follows the disaster movie formula: toss a salad of character archetypes (the Nervous Air Traveler, the Mother W/Baby, the Rich Guy Who Thinks He’s Above All This) and let the audience guess who’ll survive. For the most part, I picked right, though a couple of obvious snake fodder candidates actually managed to squeak by and Learn A Lesson About Themselves.

Unlike many popcorn flicks, I didn’t find my intelligence especially insulted. There was just enough handwaving to sell the overly complicated assassination-by-serpent premise, and Vic and I were grateful that the script at least acknowledged that Hawaii (from which the plane began its doomed flight) is the one place in the U.S. where you won’t find any snakes. However, Vic did point out that it should have been a tipoff that something was wrong with the plane when the flight attendents were bestowing flower leis on passengers leaving the Aloha State.

One thing that I enjoyed about Snakes is that it didn’t get all self-referential, ala Scream. Hipster irony worked then, but it’s since been overdone. While there were times in which the characters reacted to the absurdity of their situation or the cliches of the airplane thriller (“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but does anyone know how to fly this plane?”), it never reached the level of parody. It’s a movie that never apologized for wanting nothing more than to give its audience a silly good time.

Mission accomplished, pilot.

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