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"Snakes on a Plane"

The python's flying circus


Although a far more polished and expensive Hollywood product, Snakes on a Plane may turn out to be the Blair Witch Project of its time, an ingeniously and almost surreptitiously marketed film that attains the status of a cult movie before it even opens. The movie generated its pre-release publicity mostly through the contemporary word-of-mouth of the Internet, which generally draws the young audience most distributors aim for, and subsequently attracted the attention of the talking heads on the cable news channels, always desperate for content and positively delighted to notice and deplore a trend.

To begin with, uncommonly and commendably, the inspired title boldly and clearly announces its subject. And the movie delivers fully on that promise, showing hundreds of rattlers, cobras, mambas, and at least one huge python slithering all over a jumbo jet, exploiting a terrific combination of familiar fears --- of flying, of enclosed spaces, and of course, of those venomous reptiles. The presence of the menaces depends upon a cunning, complicated, and utterly preposterous premise, a plan intended to knock off a whole planeload of people in order to kill the only witness to a vicious mob murder.

The scheme involves shipping those snakes on an airplane carrying the witness (Nathan Phillips), accompanied by an FBI agent (Samuel L. Jackson), from Honolulu to Los Angeles to testify at the murderer's trial. The plotters package the snakes in crates set to open at a particular altitude, and coat the passengers' leis with a chemical that turns the normally somnolent and peace-loving creatures nasty, inciting them to attack every person they encounter. That includes the pilots, thus guaranteeing that the plane will crash into the Pacific Ocean. (There really must be a simpler way to erase a prosecution witness, but these guys apparently never heard of Occam's Razor.)

The passengers generally conform to the usual rules of the Hollywood microcosm, familiar to any veteran of the war movie. It's a mixed salad of ethnicity and personality, with a rap star, a couple of young kids, an infant, a honeymooning couple, and a yapping lap dog thrown in for additional seasoning. The behavior of most of these people also follows some traditional patterns, which the presence of the danger intensifies; at the same time, some unlikely heroes emerge from the chaos and terror of the reptilian encounters.

Once the plane takes off and everything appears to run smoothly, the snakes of course enter the action. It's the event the audience anticipates with a good deal of enthusiasm, and they cheer the reptiles as they slither and ooze through the aircraft's electrical and air conditioning systems into the passenger cabin and the flight deck. The snakes begin their aggression when one drops out of the smoke alarm in a lavatory, interrupting the ecstasies of a couple making love, then continue, snake by snake, with a number of quite horrible bites of vulnerable people, often shockingly in some sensitive areas of the body. Some strike at the eyes, one bites a woman on the tongue, another bites a man on the penis while he urinates, and a monstrous python swallows a passenger head first.

As soon as the passengers understand the danger, they naturally panic, until Jackson takes charge and tries to organize some kind of defense. Compounding the chaos, some operating systems break down and the pilots suffer snake attacks, which means Jackson must find someone who can fly the plane; further, he must coordinate with his supervisors on the ground to find antidotes to the venom for those still alive.

Despite the pervasive absurdity and the exaggerated emotional reactions, the film maintains both an exhilarating pace and a good deal of conscious humor, combining them all in a most entertaining package. And since a number of the passengers perform some heroic actions to save their fellows, and others discover surprising qualities within themselves under the pressure of the occasion, even the bizarre comedy of the characters and the situation cannot diminish the script's humanity. Snakes on a Plane, amazingly enough, demonstrates a certain faith in the ability of ordinary human beings to display a potential for nobility. Who would have thought it?

Snakes on a Plane (R), directed by David R. Ellis, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13