Hype on a Plane

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Underneath the now famous Internet campaign, there is a movie. Which, it might be argued, is essentially over the minute the main title flashes on the screen. What film could possibly live up to that alarming phrase: Snakes on a Plane? It has the artless — not to say cheesy — directness of an old-fashioned bottom-of-the-bill B picture, promising thrills of a purely visceral kind: no aliens from outer space, no philosophical musings about man's place in the universe. All the movie has to do is show us a familiar, alarming menace — the aforementioned snakes — slithering around in a closed, inescapable space — the aforementioned airplane — threatening its customary human cargo, which will be familiar to anyone who remembers passenger list of, say, The High and the Mighty or the Airport series of yore. You know this crowd — the brave, the mean, the selfish, the feckless, most of whom, when the crisis peaks, are capable of being whipped into an effective fighting force by a peerless leader, in this instance personified by Samuel L. Jackson's Neville Flynn, an FBI agent escorting a witness (Nathan Phillips) from Hawaii to Los Angeles to testify against a crime lord.

For reasons best known to the slightly desperate screenwriters (John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez), it is a master criminal who rounds up every known type of deadly snake from the four corners of the world, introduces them into the cargo hold and hots them up with pheremones (the creatures are passive, we are told, except when they have sex on their very tiny minds). I especially liked the gigantic boa constrictor, which is used to grisly comic effect a couple of times in the course of the movie. But never mind — each of you will have your special favorites among the wild things.

You will also naturally be expecting certain standard beats in the story. The mother protecting her newborn babe, the little boys traveling alone and in need of some parental guidance, the super capable hostess (Julianna Margulies) who provides a lot of commonsensically courageous behavior. It should probably go without saying that both pilots are rendered herpetologically inert and that someone without experience (shades of Doris Day in Julie) will have to land the plane. Put this another way: Snakes on a Plane is, most basically, a standard disaster-in-the-air movie with a great — oh, all right, salable — gimmick.

Implicit in the marketing campaign for it is the promise of camp humor, and, in this, the movie pretty much fails. These snakes have a way of attaching themselves to variously unspeakable parts of the human anatomy. It is not an awfully good idea to unzip your fly in the bathroom when these things are on the loose. And as for making illicit love in the john, forget about it. But to be honest about it, the laughs engendered by these incidents derive more from simple shock — ewww, yuck — than from any — dare we say it in this context? — more subtle response.

We can perhaps count ourselves lucky that the snakes are not permitted carry-on luggage — no hair gels, no spray-on deodorants — and its producers may perhaps count themselves lucky in a release date that coincides with a spike in in-flight anxiety. Or maybe not. Maybe no one wants to reminded just now of the underlying fragility of our travel arrangements. But its core audience — teen-agers out for a good time on a Saturday night — are not, as a rule frequent fliers, and I suspect that they'll have some fun with Snakes on a Plane. The director, David R. Ellis, is not exactly Alfred Hitchcock — he's often messy in his stagings — but as his picture rattles along its thrill-a-minute flight plan he does manage to induce a certain amnesia about its preposterous premise.

Still, we are left with plenty of time to ponder the same deep questions that seem to be preoccupying the media savants as they contemplate this harmless little movie: how effective has the Internet campaign for the film been, and what may it bode for the marketing of movies in the future? I suspect that Snakes will probably perform pretty much as most scare movies do — a big opening weekend followed by an alarming fall-off in its second and third weeks. I had a pretty good, regressive time at it — I've always kind of liked movies about airplanes that get the wobbles somewhere in mid-flight — but I don't really think it has a lot of crossover potential with the AARP crowd. Which means, I think, that cheapish movies can be cheaply, effectively promoted via the Net — more bad news for the people who sell display ads for the newspapers. I don't think, however, that the next Meryl Streep film is likely to gain a lot of traction among the bloggers. It'll still have to be sold the old-fashioned way, with good reviews, good word of mouth and maybe an Oscar campaign. Shoot! Once again technology fails us in an area where movies need all the help they can get.