The movie’s neither good enough nor bad enough to leave much of an impression. Director David Ellis does seem to have gotten the memo about camping it up, but perhaps not as early in the filmmaking process as some would have liked. And so the movie kind of careens between Airport (with snakes) and Airplane (with snakes), genre and genre parody. Itching to get things started, Ellis lets his snakes — all 400 of them — out of the cargo bay much too early, passing up any chance for suspense. And most of them are so clearly digitized, you feel like you’re watching a cartoon.
That it was self-consciously over the top was what made it watchable; that its over-the-top scenes were so scattershot was what made it disappointing. You can tell where the gratuitous language, nudity and gross-out scenes were added: without them, the movie would have been more earnest, less fun, and just plain mediocre — it would have been a forgettable, low-budget bomb.
Even so, the character development and writing were profoundly weak; we needed Samuel L. to come alive more, to inhabit his typecast bad-ass persona more — in other words — say the 12-letter M-word more — in order to breathe more life into this film. As it stands, you can see the plastic surgeon’s scars.
But never mind that shit. What about the motherfucking snakes?
I usually make a point of avoiding snake-themed B movies such as Anaconda, Rattlers or Silent Predators: they’re just too painful to watch for someone in the know. But as someone with one foot in the Snakes on a Plane-obsessed blogosphere and the other in the reptile-keeping world, I suppose I had to go see this one. But I kept my eye out for the three things that make me cringe when snakes are on film:
- Using harmless snakes as stand-ins. It’s hard, at least for me, to take a scene seriously when the villain is threatening the hero with a corn snake, a boa constrictor or something similarly placid.
- The snakes exhibit crazy behaviour that makes no sense, such as ridiculously high levels of aggression, faster movement than is metabolically possible, and so forth.
- The public relations implications of the film — as in, oh crap, here’s some more nonsense we have to go and debunk.
Using harmless snakes
In Snakes on a Plane, the biting was done by computer-generated snakes. Most at least vaguely resembled real venomous snakes, at least in broad strokes, but they weren’t scrupulously accurate: something might have looked like a desert horned viper, for example, but it was four times as big and twice as fast. (And let’s not get into the giant python and its profoundly unrealistic teefers.)
Real snakes were mostly in the background — crawling under the seats, or across the cockpit’s console — and they were all harmless, pet store species. I spotted several variants of corn snake and milk snake, including anerythristic corns and amelanistic Honduran milks.
And I believe that the snake that dove in to eat the cat in its carrier looked an awful lot like a bullsnake. Now, we have two bullsnakes, and two cats: the former are far too small to eat the latter, but, since I’m trying to get Goober to leave the snakes alone, I should maybe make him watch this movie.
As a society, we’re probably at the point where enough people know enough about snakes that simply treating them as mindless killers (at least unironically) is simply not going to fly any more. Too many of us watch the Discovery channel if not keep them outright as pets. I’m guessing this because movies persist in adding some bullshit explanation that says that these snakes are not normal: something external makes them crazier or their venom deadlier, because the norm — sluggish, inoffensive creatures that even when venomous usually would rather be left the hell alone — isn’t very exciting.
No different here: pheromones — pheromones! — drive the snakes into a killing frenzy. I’ve known a few snakes affected by pheromones, all males: usually, they ignore you as they try to find the nearest female; at their worst, they come on your hands. They do not, as a rule, go berserker.
Public relations implications
Before Snakes on a Plane came out, I braced myself for what I thought was the inevitable moral panic once journalists discovered that snakes are routinely shipped by air freight. Air freight is the only legal means of shipping snakes, and my paranoid half envisioned the entire snake industry coming to a screeching halt because some silly movie inspired people to demand that the motherfucking snakes be banned from the motherfucking planes.
But no such moral panic occurred — Slate’s Explainer described shipping snakes by air in a completely matter-of-fact tone — unless you include this gem from The Daily Show:
Oh, and one more thing: snakes are illegal in Hawaii, where there are no indigenous species. More likely to smuggle them in than out. Minor problem with that plot point, there.