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Fly the slithery skies

`Snakes on a Plane' isn't quite a horror film or a thriller or a parody. Happy now, Web fans?

August 19, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

"Snakes on a Plane" is many things. A great summer catch phrase. A possible lyric in a future Alanis Morissette song ("It's like snay-ee-akes, on a pla-a-ane ..."). A potentially big step toward the total elimination of the creative middleman in mainstream entertainment. A high school prank perpetrated on a mass scale.

By now, everybody has heard the story about how the title got a lot of early attention online, which naturally led to riffing, which led an excited New Line to shoot additional scenes in order to integrate fans' suggestions. So, Samuel L. Jackson dutifully bellows the now official refrain of the summer, "I've had it with these %#@*&{circ}% snakes on this %#@*&{circ}% plane!" near the end of the movie, and other latter additions are clearly identifiable. There's a scene in which a horny couple gets it on in the bathroom. (Snake on a mammary.) A scene in which a urinating man gets a nasty surprise. (Snake on a vas deferens.) A scene in which a snake crawls up the wrong end of a comically overweight lady. (Snake in a bottom.) Snakes, at least the snakes in this movie, love all manner of human orifices. They will plunge right through your eyeball if given half the chance.

The snakes on this plane are also very media savvy, and it's quite possible they've attended a Robert McKee screenwriting seminar or two. They attack strictly according to the rules of Hollywood. They kill the mean, anti-American British businessman but spare the hot madonna and child. They let the two sexy stewardesses live but kill the unattractive-but-noble one. (Snakes on a Shelley Winters character.) Progressive of them, they don't kill a black man, though they do bite one in the butt. (He declines venom extraction from an ambiguously gay steward.) They bite a kid named Tommy, but it's just a nibble.

The movie begins in Hawaii, where a surfer dude named Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) accidentally witnesses the brutal murder of a Los Angeles prosecutor by a vicious mobster named Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Sean is rescued from reprisal by agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson) and is flown to L.A. to serve as a witness. ("Last week, I was planning a surfing trip to Bali," Sean says. "But now you make it sound like I got no choices!") That's correct, son, and soon you'll have even fewer choices because Kim has managed to smuggle a huge crate full of poisonous snakes into the cargo hold (which should not be construed by the public as permission to pack the tweezers).

For a vicious mobster, Kim has a florid imagination. Why bother with explosive substances (liquids on a plane) when you can obtain a large quantity of international poisonous reptiles from a kooky survivalist in the desert and then spray the passengers' welcome leis with snake pheromone, which drives them wild, and not in a good way. It's foolproof! Nobody on board is any the wiser for a good 30 minutes, giving us ample time to get to know the characters. There's a germ-phobic rap star played by Flex Alexander, his sulky entourage, a chirpy rich girl (Rachel Blanchard) with a Chihuahua and the aforementioned businessman. These are the first-class passengers, forced to fly coach so that Sean might enjoy Flynn's one-on-one protection. (Snakes on a refund.) Julianna Margulies plays a flight attendant on her last tour of duty, bravely taking on testy passengers and cobras while making time to engage in some girlish flirting with Jackson's character. She is quite a woman, and one sincerely hopes she cashed quite a paycheck.

But the real stars of the movie are the snakes, whose point of view we witness sporadically through a green-tinted snake-eye-cam. (Snakes wear some very low-tech night vision goggles, apparently, and one sincerely hopes the troops in Iraq are better equipped.) While the snakes seem very keen to explore every crevice of humanity, director David R. Ellis and writers John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez and David Dalessandro are content to skim along the surface of '70s disaster flicks and toss in sundry audience suggestions. The result is not quite a horror movie (too cheerful and can-do) or a thriller (too cheerful and stupid), nor does it parody itself or take itself seriously, thereby canceling out the camp factor. It's more like an improv sketch at 30,000 feet.

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