Monday, August 21, 2006

Snakes on a Plane (Ellis, 2006)

OK, let’s not go overboard. Snakes on a Plane, the new film from David R. Ellis - which has gained a great deal of publicity for its straightforward “give-the-people-what-they want” approach - is neither disaster nor masterpiece. What is it? A fairly efficient Hollywood action film that has the good sense to embrace its ridiculous premise and push it to gleefully absurd heights. Make all the jokes you want. Snakes and planes are two things that lend themselves exceedingly well to creating tension. Both the villains and the setting are used to excellent effect as Ellis creates a genuine feeling of claustrophobia, chaos and hysteria. Snakes are inherently dramatic creatures, shifting between a slow ominous slither and a sharp, sudden strike – two gears which are nicely integrated into the film’s rhythm.

For the most part, the film achieves an appropriate tone – somewhere on the silly scale between Stephen Chow and Sam Raimi – but unfortunately uses up all its best ideas in the second act. Comparatively, the film’s final scenes are a bit of a letdown. After actually creating characters that we are willing to invest in, the film places far too much of its resolution in the hands of a peripheral comic relief character whose nonchalance defuses too much of the excitement that has been built up over the course of an hour-and-a-half. In the lead, Samuel L. Jackson is given a perfect vehicle for his humor and charisma. He embraces the role wholeheartedly, coming alive in a situation that might have left other actors embarrassed. Oddly enough, one of his few lines that do not work is the one that has received the most attention. The line, with its double use of everybody’s favorite 13-letter profanity was a suggestion from internet fans that eventually found its way into the film. Jackson’s line reading is impeccable and, taken on its own, the line is exceedingly funny. However, the filmmakers have inserted it into a part of the film where it doesn’t quite fit. Jackson’s line is an explosion, something that we could easily imagine him building towards; yet, it occurs during a time of relative calm when the passengers are plotting their next move. A couple minutes earlier and it would have been perfect. As it is, it misses the mark and seems incongruous, an obvious addition to the original script.

As for any metaphorical connection to terrorism or satire of America’s culture of fear, Ellis has made no overt gestures in that direction. His film exists in a universe that is largely divorced from our own. It is a purely cinematic universe, generated to inspire escapism and not weighed down with anything so lofty as ‘relevance’ or ‘purpose’. Still, I think it is fair to say that it is no accident that this much-hyped and eagerly anticipated film (in some circles) is a cartoon recreation of one of the deepest fears many of us hold in the early years of the 21st century. Perhaps deep down the film resonates for us because it allows us to distort and openly ridicule something that many of us find genuinely terrifying. Perhaps its simplicity is comforting with its promise of a slick, charismatic hero who will take care of us, cracking wise all along the way. Or perhaps it just boils down to the fact that snakes and planes are an idea whose time has come.



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