The phrase “Never judge a book by its cover” is almost always true, with a few unfortunate exceptions. One such exception is the 2006 film Snakes on a Plane. Those four words tell you everything you need to know about the movie: it’s about “snakes” that are “on a plane.” Why would snakes be on a plane? If snakes did get on a plane, would anything of note even happen? There, in the intersection and dissection of those thoughts, is everything you need to know about the tongue-in-cheek action film starring Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a movie befitting of its simplistic, funny title.
Snakes on a Plane was released on August 18, 2006, which means it’s celebrating its 15th anniversary this week. However, the film’s legacy begins a little before that; in July 2006, Snakes on a Plane took its hilarious title and premise into San Diego Comic-Con and blew the roof off the place. There, fans and bloggers alike were wowed by the gory, fun footage. The event created huge buzz all over the internet and, as a result, people who got their film news online expected it to be an instant cult hit. Then it opened. While it did hit number one on its opening weekend, it barely grossed $14 million on its way to $34 million domestic (and $62 million international), which was way under expectations.
Why was the opening so bad? The overall negative reviews were one reason, but mostly it was a realization that excitement inside the bubble of the internet isn’t the end all, be all. When a person outside that bubble hears a title like “Snakes on the Plane,” odds are they’re going to dismiss it. And so it was that after its opening weekend, Snakes on a Plane took its place in history. For 15 years, the film has been best known as a cautionary tale—proof that buzz among the geek crowd is good, but doesn’t guarantee a hit. I should know. I was at Comic-Con as a fan when the footage played, got hugely hyped about it, and went to see the film in theaters as soon as I could. I walked out dejected, like I’d been duped, and put the film out of my mind. But this week I revisited it for the first time since 2006 and found lots and lots to think about.
Directed by David R. Ellis (Cellular, The Final Destination)—and written by David Dalessandro, John Heffernan, and Sebastian Gutierrez—Snakes on a Plane follows an FBI agent named Neville Flynn (Jackson) who is tasked with protecting a surfer named Sean (Nathan Phillips). Sean witnessed a notorious crime boss named Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murder a lawyer and has agreed to testify against him. To make sure Sean gets to do that, Flynn needs to get him from Hawaii to Los Angeles and protect him from Kim’s henchman. And that’s how, for reasons that are never fully explained, Kim decides to infest the flight with snakes in the hopes the airplane will be disabled and everyone will die, including Sean.
It should go without saying just how preposterous the whole premise is. At one point Kim even says he’s putting snakes on the plane because he’s exhausted all other options, something we definitely don’t see in the movie (we see him send henchman to Sean’s home for a second but that’s about it). Jumping from passive assassination to “drugged snakes tasked with bringing down an airplane and killing hundreds” is a little much. Also, you might be thinking, “Are snakes even aggressive?” and the answer is, generally, no. Unless of course... they’re sprayed with special pheromones to make them that way. Again, just preposterous. However, this movie is titled Snakes on a Plane—anything that has to happen to get those snakes onto that plane is basically forgivable.
Unfortunately though, if you didn’t know that’s where things were going, the movie doesn’t give you a clue. The first 20 minutes are an elaborate, snakeless setup that’s horribly uninteresting and flat. Sean is a nothing, completely disposable character; we’ve seen about a billion other movies and TV shows about witnesses testifying against crime bosses. Even Jackson’s character doesn’t manage to be engaging in these early scenes. It’s as if he’s just going through the motions, hoping you’ll fast forward to the good shit. Plus, it’s all handled very seriously, almost like an episode of Law and Order or something. There are zero hints of the stupidity and mayhem that’s to come. Snakes on a Plane’s first act might as well be from another movie—in fact, when you think about it, at a certain point it really could be about anything—there’s almost no indication or connection to why we’re watching this particular story, save for one very quick shot of a snake once everyone boards the plane.
Yes, understanding a story is important. Meeting and caring about characters is crucial. But there has to be some tonal cohesion. Maybe even a character or two you care about or a tease linking everything together. In Snakes on a Plane, basically everyone—up to and including the film’s second lead, a flight attendant named Claire (Julianna Margulies)—is given one, maybe two, stereotypical traits to explore and that’s it. By the time the flight takes off, interest is low, as is emotional engagement and attachment. It’s not a good start. But a few minutes later the snakes are let loose... and it’s glorious.
For about 40 minutes, the film is basically nonstop action. There are snakes biting people, snakes eating people, snakes going in people’s mouths, ears, eyes—one even bites a penis mid-urination. Truly, the movie goes from boring cop story to full-on horror-thriller almost in an instant. Adding to the campiness is that most of the snakes are created with very questionable CGI, so they look super fake. (This probably wasn’t intentional but we’re going to pretend it was.) A few shots of real snakes are mixed in, but for the most part, the snakes move and look very much like they came out of a computer. Somehow though, it’s OK because the creatures are doing things snakes would almost certainly never do.
It’s in this fleeting second act where Snakes on a Plane is the book the cover promised. The action is completely over the top, hugely improbable, and executed with precision and tension, with each and every scene getting increasingly, hilariously more dire. For a while, the entire film has a really palpable jolt of energy, however, once that starts to wind down, there’s that pesky, overly dense story to get back to. Part of that is Flynn’s FBI boss (Bobby Cannavale) running around Los Angeles chasing down leads about foreign snakes. Another is trying to service every one of these characters that have been introduced. There’s also a laundry list of out-of-place oddities such as a germaphobe rapper named Three Gs (Flex Alexander) who tells a little white kid to “stay Black,” gropes a woman’s breast, and pulls a gun on his fellow passengers when he gets overly anxious. The co-pilot is openly misogynistic to the flight attendants. There are multiple forced romances as well as rampant gender and racial stereotypes. The movie is far from cohesive, which makes its transition to the final act more than a little awkward.
By the end of the film, the passengers have basically isolated themselves from most of the snakes, but there still needs to be a big finale. So Flynn—after delivering the iconic line “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”—decides the best way to get rid of the last few snakes is to shoot out a window. This results in the snakes being sucked out, along with luggage, then chairs, and the hole gets bigger and bigger as an impromptu pilot (comedian Kenan Thompson, which is a whole other story) does his best to land the plane safely. If this scene was in any other movie, it would honestly be a decent little set-piece, but because this is about snakes and the snakes hardly play a role in the climax, it makes the entire ending far from satisfying.
“Far from satisfying” was my biggest takeaway after watching Snakes on a Plane for its 15-year anniversary. The actual “snakes on a plane” part of the movie is great, but the idea itself is so absurd and so small, it takes way too long to set up, and no time at all to fix, leaving a movie with a boring beginning, amazing middle, and disappointing ending. One saving grace is that during the film’s end credits, the music video for the non-diegetic theme song “Snakes on a Plane (Bring It)” by the now-defunct pop rock group Cobra Starship plays. The song is such a bop, you end the movie on a high note anyway.
Overall, Snakes on a Plane still kind of stinks, but at least it teaches us a few lessons. One is that sometimes an idea that seems good actually isn’t if it can’t be pulled off successfully. Another is that online buzz is ultimately kind of meaningless. And third: 15 years can, sometimes, make a movie you thought was a godawful piece of crap into something that’s merely far from satisfying.
- The supporting cast in this movie is a who’s who of excellent actors that’s don’t get nearly enough to do. There’s Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch as the first person who dies because he broke two major rules of a horror movie—he did drugs and had sex. Insidious’ Lin Shaye is one of the flight attendants. Anchorman’s David Koechner is one of the pilots. There’s Elsa Pataky from Fast Five, Terry Chen from Almost Famous, just so many “Hey I recognize that actor” moments throughout.
- One of the most delightfully dated moments in the film is when Flynn needs to describe all the snakes to the snake expert over the in-flight phone. Someone says this process would be easier if they could just take photos to which someone replies they’d just need a digital camera and a laptop. Then—this is the best part—one of the passengers pulls out a Blackberry and goes “This is both.” That a camera phone with internet is treated as a reveal in this movie just shows how dated it’s become.
- I honestly feel like Snakes on a Plane would have been 15% better if Ellis has done a better job casting Sean. Nathan Phillips is a good-looking guy but his performance is super flat; he has almost no chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson and fails to provide even an iota of sympathy for the character. Even though the whole movie is ostensibly about him, you never for one moment care about him, and it’s a huge hindrance to the film overall.
- Snakes on a Plane both opens and ends in a tropical location. Each has its reason in the story but, for the bigger picture, it’s probably supposed to make you feel like you were on vacation. Like, this is a movie to watch and have a great time. But it doesn’t work; the juxtaposition only makes the film feel that much more disjointed. In addition, the ending bit in particular (an awkward cut paying off an exchange from the beginning about Flynn surfing) is so out of place you almost don’t believe it’s happening. A perfect example, among many, that this movie had no idea what it wanted to be outside of that very simple, descriptive, catchy title.
- And now, I’ll take a cue from the film and end this article in the exact same way, with this awesome song.
Snakes on a Plane is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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