RIORI Vol 3, Installment 44: David R Ellis’ “Snakes On A Plane” (2006)

Snakes on a Plane

The Players…

Samuel L Jackson, Julianna Marguiles, Nathan Phillips, Bobby Cannavale, Flex Alexander and Todd Louiso, with Sunny Mabrey, Kenan Thompson, Rachel Blanchard and David Koechner.

The Story…

After witnessing a brutal gangland hit, Sean Jones has got to get out of Hawaii and back to the mainland to testify. But gangsters being a prickly bunch wouldn’t just let Jones waltz back to LA, so FBI special agent Neville Flynn lends his protection.

Again, angry gangsters can be tenacious in making people “disappear,” even those secured on a one-way flight. But why use guns, thugs and even hijacking to take out the mark when one can take more subtle approach?

Like using poison.

The Rant…

Okay. Quick quiz: who out there knows what a “cult film” is?

*a few raised hands, a few shrugs and definitely a few snores*

You. In the back with the half-empty sack of Funyuns. You have bright eyes.

Um, okay. A documentary on the Jonestown Massacre counts. I guess.

Let me steer you right, or at least into my web, little fly. The kind of cult film I’m talking about is a movie that was usually a poor performer at the multiplex for being either to esoteric in story or too left of center to attract a wide, mainstream audience. Most of these movies tank, but have that je ne sais quoi that gradually draws viewers into its vortex over time. Thank home video, late night HBO and the junk Netflix streams for pennies. Such movies aren’t necessarily bad per se, but definitely steering along the road less travelled. Some are just so odd, so half-baked, so damned stubborn that the filmmakers must have had an extra chromosome floating around in their muse.

And every year more folks heed the clarion call. A vast, quiet flock (well, mostly quiet. You can’t watch Monty Python And The Holy Grail with dweebs who just. Won’t. Stop. Quoting. The dialogue. Run away!) glom onto these kooky flicks and follow its story, actors, one-liners as gospel with all the reverence of a Benedictine monk. Or a soldier in the Kiss Army. One and the same, really. These fans have arcane knowledge about every aspect of their quarry. They’ve memorized the lines. They’ve deconstructed the plot eight ways to Sunday. Sometime Monday, too, just to be sure. They get something deep out of such movies. I ain’t talking pithy examinations of the human condition made flesh via celluloid. Something deep, life-altering, meaningful. Something like seeing the violence inherent in the system. Like being oppressed. Such film fiends are loonies.

*pause for effect*

Word of mouth. That’s how cult films are truly created. Sure, sure. The usual machinations are well in place whenever a director cuts their film. They know where it’s supposed to go. The final product, however…well, it just misses the mark. And then they roll the rock away from the cave and those who got the true message of the movie flitter into the night and harangue like-minded goofs with all the rapture of someone who just lost their virginity to a stranger in a bus station that reeked of Funyuns—

*cocked eyebrow*

—and would only accept Sacagawea dollars as payment for services. Or more Funyuns. Admit it. You’ve been there yourself. Drawn into a web of mystery, dangerous and foreign. Seeing a movie not meant to be popular, a moneymaker or even make much sense. Mulling it over to see its inner value, repeated viewings.

And eventually you loved it. You saw the light. It was a dark, sticky light to be sure, like the kind glowing from beneath Mr Funyuns’ red-shaded lamp (how he got the lamp to work in the bus station escapes me, too), but you saw the light. You began to obnoxiously quote Holy Grail (assh*les). You figured out why Brazil was titled Brazil. You agreed with Wooderson about them high school girls. You knew that that carpet really did tie the room together. You laughed at those who thought Snake was dead. You got it.

No one else did. And welcome to the club.

Cult. Have some Kool-Aid. One of us one of us one of us.

*obligatory beer can to the temple*

Thanks. Needed that. Moving on.

Here’s the rub: cult films are not designed to be so. They’re accidents. Almost stillborn at the box office, audiences unfound. They gotta gestate in the underverse of bootleg tapes/happenstance viewings/careful YouTube scouring/falling off a truck. They’re popularity is also made buoyant by geeks in high school whose interaction with the opposite sex happens with all the frequency of an Elvis sighting (the King’s working in a bait shop in Michigan with Tupac and Jim Morrison, BTW. Check out the movie). Cult films just happen; there is no formula. The plots and acting and styles are myriad.

*list time*

Movies like anything by Monty Python, Escape From New York, Time Bandits, The Big Lebowski (an anomaly, actually), Dazed And Confused, Pulp Fiction, even the original Star Wars trilogy and the magna mater of cult films The Rocky Horror Picture Show all bucked a trend (or perhaps started one). Be it floundering at the box office, receiving dodgy criticism and mostly shrugs or just being too obtuse and f*cking weird, all those titles gained fame and redemption by accident. Happy accident, much to the directors’ chagrin.

Still, consider this: Eddie And The Cruisers warranted a sequel thanks to heavy HBO rotation.

Even the dumpiest of films have an audience out there, waiting. Said hordes behind the rock, sniffing popcorn and programming Tromaville into their GPS units. They wait. Oh yes, they wait. They wait for the accident, like rubbernecking on the highway at rush hour. Check out the wreckage. We should film this! The accident!

That’s the key word in the endgame: accident. You can’t create a cult film on purpose. You can almost pay homage to such travesties with a tight budget, canned acting and an angular plot. But it has to be organic. Let the chips fall. No plot wheel could save you now. Let the best boy walk off the set. Set that model train on fire and hope the audience doesn’t notice it’s melting. Contract a marginally talentend band for the soundtrack (or even Philip Glass). Hell, create a matte painting of the Manhattan skyline denuded of electricity and hurl a Revell 747 at it. Cross your fingers.

Cult films just happen. They sprout like mushrooms. Can’t predict them. Can’t design them. No matter what you try.

That being said, guess what? Somebody tried…

Special agent Neville Flynn (Jackson) has had some tricky assignments before, but his latest is gonna be one for the ages. Sure, it’s just routine witness protection, but this poor schlub—one Sean Jones (Phillips) saw something that he sure shouldn’t have.

While vacationing in Hawaii, Jones’ bike ride ended in a gangland hit of the first degree. No one f*cks with Eddie Kim and Sean sees why. Namely baseball bats to the head. And chest. And nether regions. And Jones gets the f*ck away from the scene of the crime as fast as his bike can carry him.

So enter Flynn. Jones’ case is pretty straightforward. Get him on a plane. Fly to LA to have him testify. Keep the dope alive. And keep Kim’s thugs at bay. Simple, right?


Sure, mob toughs are a creative lot when it comes to waxing any poor fool who happens into their ill gotten games. Can’t leave any witnesses. Might gum up their works. But this Jones dope can do real damage, and TSA is rather crafty in doing the opposite of the gorillas. Getting a shooter on a plane is tricky. Sabotaging the plane is too messy. No. The best approach is to be sneaky. Nail the nabob via stealth. And a keen understanding of herpetology.

Not long after takeoff, something goes horribly awry. Flynn’s usually solid in his duty, but he’s never had to face a menace like this. A horde of venomous snakes tendril out of the cargo hold, wantonly biting and poisoning the passengers, searching to bring Jones down.

The heck?

The pilot’s disabled. The passengers are panicked. Jones is pissing his pants. Flynn, with all his experience in the field, is woefully unprepared for this calamity. All that’s left to do is ride this nightmare out, slapping the lion hard enough to make him stop roaring and rally any able body not bitten.

Security detail. It’s usually pretty routine…

It’s worth noting that Snakes On A Plane had quite a push into the multiplex by an internet campaign/baiting. Curious potential fans responded in kind, and the producers tweaked the movie to better serve the prospective audience. In other words: sweetening.

“Sweetening” is an old school term—often used for even older school TV programming—to tweak the production just enough to make a so-so plot into a story that’ll really grab ’em in Columbus. Sh*t like strategic laugh tracks, snazzier costuming and/or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Like canned chuckles and low cut dresses. Stuff like that.

The producers of Snakes stirred the pot/plot enough in response to internet furor. The end result? A manufactured cult movie.

Recall what I said about cult flicks being organic things. They just happen. There is no design. Once the beast is let loose xenogenesis takes over (refer to the I, Robot installment). What the would-be cult movie was morphs into what the cult movie becomes by what a weirdo audience embraces after the fact. After the fact. After the fact. One cannot create a cult film with any forethought or creative design. Did John Carpenter set out to create the ultimate bogeyman flick with Halloween? Maybe. More likely he was just following his muse. He wasn’t trying to break any banks. Chances are any deep meanings to Michael Myers killing spree were nary to be seen. He wasn’t trying to raise William Shatner’s profile any higher either, I’ll bet. Nope. Just wanted to make a scary movie and a love letter to Howard Hawks.

But the kids in purple robes and fresh kicks laid out on the beds and waited for the saucers to arrive nevertheless.

Folks have made the argument that Snakes was designed to be a cult film on purpose. The sweetening kinda leans towards the truth. This practice kind of ruins the whole “organic” aspect of a cult film. Sure, you can be coy. You can cage gimmicks from countless other “successful” cult flicks, even with respect. A nod here and there. You can try and be respectful, even tasteful. But you can’t jam a loose formula down collective throats and expect longevity. You can’t storm the gates of Heaven Can Wait. You gotta have patience that you didn’t know you needed.

Someone should’ve smacked director Ellis upside the head with this concept.

Like most of you goofballs, I find Sam Jackson amusing and often entertaining (I loved him in the movie where he played the angry black guy). He’s built up quite the CV portraying left of center characters, from a semi-cultured hitman to a comic book villian to a Jedi. He’s a cult figure in and of himself, really. It’s unfortunate that his cachet was shoehorned into Snakes. It’s almost as if his résumé preceded him here, and so the scene chewing and gesticulating felt called in. It was cartoonish, as was the rest of the cast’s antics.

Before I rail on here, I gotta jump in. On myself. Think that might defy some law of physics. Oh well, moving on.

That term cartoonish is rather apt in describing Snakes’, well, everything. If this was attempting to be a cult movie intentionally—respecting the whole offbeat and angular premise above—most culty flicks do have an aspect of Looney Tunes creeping at the fringes. Escape From New York plays like a comic book (which was eventually made into a series featuring the further exploits of Snake Plissken, who turned out to still not be dead). All the Monty Python films are the near sardonic musings of Lewis Carroll on an acid trip. Practically any effort from Hal Ashby is an exercise in bitter absurdity (Harold And Maude anyone?). What’s up with that, Doc?

But on the flipside, such films do have a serious muse driving them. Or at least a determined, demented,  mescal soaked urge. What gets filmed needs to be filmed, not what’s supposed to be filmed, no matter how calculated Kubrick’s catalogue appears to be. If their warped children come across as obtuse, quirky or just plain “what the f*ck?” a measure of organic growth insinuates itself. I mean, Blade Runner didn’t just happen—it was DOA at the box office and was a slow burn on video to raise it up as the masterpiece it is (not looking forward to the sequel BTW. Betcha neither is Ford, really)—but Ridley Scott had his vision, which varied significantly from Philip Dick’s source novel. The drive to follow a muse can make director and especially scenarists do some kooky things.

Kooky is not really a muse. You can’t tell the punchline before the joke. Either Snakes missed the bus, or made a mash-up of too many out-of-left-field tropes that bubbled up from a cult film “formula” The most obvious I spied with my little eye? Low production value. How’s that for a hint? Snakes resembles a made-for-TV movie on the USA Network circa 1991. Well aged cheeze. The characters are all ciphers, including Jackson as the rough-and-tumble FBI flatfoot. And as a companion to the goofball plot, there is much too much winking to the audience. Silliness as a form of build-up to the climax, which never ceases. It’s a night at Dave & Buster’s here: steady stream of stupid. Is everything here on purpose (yep)? The lines get kinda blurry. Either Snakes is a charming lark, a nod to low budget schlockfests following the filmmaker’s sinister urge, or a very deliberate send-up of such movies. Gets hard to tell. Too much winking? Stuff is amusing is stuff is amusing. We shouldn’t need cues.

I feel behooved now (am I using too many academic words, poop head?) to mention the Mel Brooks/Zucker Brothers aspect of stupid here. Talk about organic. And to specify my personal definition, organic means patient, if not in pace than in gestation. Slow and/or casual build-up. Sure, Mel’s antics are manic and often rapid-fire, but almost all his sh*t is deliberate, and I’ll don’t mean literally on purpose.

C’mon, fire. Walk with me.

Everything in Snakes tries to hard to be loose and freewheeling, and at the same time it’s also perplexing. Is it manufactured cult film via message boards, and wink and a nod to multiple Bruce Campbell vehicles or a big, stupid joke? To that I respond: right? Right? Reply hazy. Ask again later.

Wasn’t planning to go into the acting or tech aspects of Snakes here. On purpose. Not much to get into beyond the cult quandary. To me (surprise, surprise) that biz was the raison d’etre for my rant. Acting? Who cares? Stereotypes all around. Plot? A distillation of every cult signature this side of Ed Wood’s filmography. Technical sh*t? Right, sh*t. Snakes was formulaic, again maybe on purpose. What I took away was Snakes was either the most sly movie to come down the pike in tricking/sating the audience into cultish fun or willfully attempting to be the stupidest. Here’s a case of you gotta see it to come to your own conclusions. Shockingly enough, I already came to mine. Like I implied, pick your poison.

So to speak.

Anywho, what have we learned? Not much with all my rambling. Snakes‘ lo-fi ethos could either be a tribute to such flights of fancy like the rubbery Godzilla flicks or a blatant rip-off teetering into Sharknado territory. Quite the boondoggle. Pick a card, any card. I myself wished Snakes was clearly funnier and more daring overall minus the effort. That’s what matters in a movie called Snakes On A (Mother-f*ckin) Plane. We be tryin’ too hard here. I think. It’s more stupid than funny. Not organic, which is usually how “cult” films are borne, dig? Better by now, punk.

There. Said my peace. Any questions from the back?


Right. The bathrooms are on the left, next to the Bursar’s office. Quit hissing.

Class dismissed. Turn in your blue books. You may now return your stewardess to her upright position.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Too much confusing stupid. Too much trying to be ironic without using the term “ironic” in a proper context. Too much injury to my sense of what evolves into a cult film. Not enough boobie shots. I have standards, y’know.

Stray Observations…

  • Something tells me Jackson took this role and acted later otherwise.
  • “This better be a matter of national security.”
  • A lot of Three Stooges action here. Almost redeeming.
  • “I almost beat the last level.”
  • There’s a possible nod to Airplane! here. Just sayin’.
  • “I can’t believe I’m saying this…” Might as well’ve been the tagline here.
  • Another possible nod to the those 70s disaster flicks. Well, we got the disaster part right with the final cut.
  • “I got bit too.”
  • “Snakes On Crack.” Better title.
  • “You’d be amazed at what a man can do with one hand.” Get it, America?
  • Every actor seemed deflated here. Especially that chick in the Mile High Club scene. And the little dog, too. Ha ha. I love being funny and clever.
  • “You too, huh?”

Next Installment…

Tiring of years with access to Wi-Fi, regular bathing and not having to forage, Jennifer Aniston (groan) and Paul Rudd (yay) develop a burning case of Wanderlust. Beyond this point there be hippies.

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