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Movie Review ****: Snakes on a Review

...Snakes on a Plane... Delivers Precisely What the Title Promises

By Michael McGraw-Herdeg
MANAGING EDITOR

Snakes on a Plane

Directed by David R. Ellis

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson

Julianna Margulies

Kenan Thompson

Rated R

Now Playing 105 minutes

Okay, so ‘Snakes on a Plane’ is not exactly the defining film of our generation. But if you haven’t already seen it, and you don’t think you want to, you’re probably mistaken; this adorable little gem of a movie is just what the summer of 2006 needed.

If you were reading The Tech during Orientation 1997, you would’ve seen a Washington Post story with the headline “Unwanted Serpents Enter Hawaii, Snakeless Island Fights Onslaught”. In August of that year, a vicious, venomous invasive species of snake was spotted slithering off a cargo plane onto the Hawaiian mainland. ‘Snakes on a Plane’ is like the Hollywood film of this experience: it gets most of the details wrong, but it’s really exciting, and there’s at least one important celebrity.

The plot is flimsy: FBI agent escorts a witness to a mob killing from Hawaii to Los Angeles, and snakes ensue. But within the narrow creative confines the story offers, director David R. Ellis admirably controls the action such that we’re never bored and we’re usually rooting for the passengers more than the snakes. Sure, the movie suffers from occasional twisted logic — if the FBI claimed the first-class cabin all to themselves, then why are its overhead compartments full of luggage? — but on the whole, it wasn’t a big deal. After all, we were expecting camp.

A tremendous ensemble cast delivers excellent but forgettable performances, with two key exceptions: Agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Snakes (themselves). The Internet hype behind this film had suggested that Jackson and the Snakes were the only key characters; this is more or less the case. Jackson’s lines drew raucuous applause on opening night (the best, but by no means the only time to see ‘Snakes on a Plane’), and his evenhanded performance is marked by his ability to remain calm in the face of a preposterous situation. Jackson effortlessly steals every single scene he’s in; his acting turns a relatively silly set of one-liners into a witty performance.

Meanwhile, the unrealistic Snakes From Hell dominate the film. Largely computer-generated and out to kill, the snakes present no particular identifiable motivation or character development -- they are, after all snakes -- but nevertheless won cheers from the audience. The snakes are so well-caricatured that we applaud both as they devastate the largely defenseless passengers and when those on board begin to fight back. On the whole, the reptilian violence is funny rather than shocking or distasteful; the sole exception is a scene where a snake emerges from an airplane toilet and bites a man somewhere very sensitive. (Ow.)

The vast difference in tone between ‘Snakes on a Plane’ and ‘Air Force One’ has much to do with the fact that the enemies aren’t human; somehow the extreme violence of the film (targeted at both hapless humans and snakes) is easy to stomach. Because the crisis on the plane is that it’s filled with hundreds of deadly snakes and not, say, hijackers, a bomb, or infectious microbes, there’s no real suspense; instead, ‘Snakes on a Plane’ cuts right to the action. The action is excellent and well-paced, and what more could you ask for from a summer flick?

The bad news is that ‘Snakes on a Plane’ is not a bad enough film to become a cult classic; the worse news is that it’s not a good enough film to merit seeing over and over again. Happily, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and with a light, fluffy, soundtrack, it’s a perfect feel-good movie. There’s also the matter of timing: released a week after the Transportation Security Administration announced a ban on most liquids on airplanes (to protect us from terrorists), Snakes on a Plane gleefully explores the reptilian threat to national security that we’ve all been ignoring. By injecting much-needed levity into America’s national discussion on security, convenience, and liberty, ‘Snakes on a Plane’ offers its lighthearted perspective: hey, at least there aren’t snakes on most planes.

Moreover, in a movie where dozens of snakes are variously shot, stabbed, speared, torched, microwaved, karate chopped, and otherwise mutilated, it is reassuring to read at the very end of the credits that no animals were harmed in the making of the film.