Andre Bazin wrote that "The fantastic in the cinema is possible only because of the irresistible realism of the photographic image. It is the image that can bring us face to face with the unreal, that can introduce the unreal into the world of the visible." This is the secret behind the appeal of Snakes on a Plane. The title caught on not only because of its hilarious directness, but also because it is a matter-of-fact promise of six reels of the uncanny. While the film's appeal is solely as a superficial internet in-joke for much of an audience, there are some of us who want to laugh and squirm and really believe in motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane. And for us, Snakes on a Plane really delivers.
After surfer Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a murder at the hands of vicious gangleader Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson), he is escorted by FBI Agent Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) to testify at Kim's trial. Unfortunately, their red-eye flight is carrying some extra passengers - a variety of poisonous snakes (as Kim puts it, "We've tried everything else!"). The setup is easily the worst thing about Snakes on a Plane - the opening scenes tread clunkily through stale action movie conventions, and the characters are mostly disposable (this excludes Jackson, the pilot [David Koechner], a snake expert [Todd Louiso], and a stewardess [Lin Shaye]). But what would normally add up to substantial criticism feels like nitpicking here; Snakes on a Plane is ultimately a "Boo!" movie, and once it kicks into high gear, it succeeds wonderfully on that level.
The smartest thing that director David R. Ellis does is to a find a tone that is toungue-in-cheek without being overly ironic or self-referential. Principal photography on Snakes on a Plane wrapped last fall, so you'll find none of the lame "Best Week Ever"-style quipping that has ruined the fun of a film called Snakes on a Plane here. Instead, it's a direct descendant of films like Piranha and Alligator that turned outlandish concepts into unpretentious, good-natured moviegoing film. While Snakes on a Plane surely knows it is ridiculous, it doesn't wink at this fact, instead assuming its audience is intelligent enough to get the joke. It's a stupid film made by smart people.
But the key to Snakes on a Plane is Samuel L. Jackson, who has seemingly promoted this film with more pride than he did Eve's Bayou. Perhaps the only actor in the universe who can have total conviction as he tasers a snake, Jackson confirms his status as one of the greatest actors of all time. He's so frequently wasted in generic crap that it's encouraging to see him given a truly unique premise; when he delivers his much-anticipated line regarding his desire to see the snakes exit the plane, he commands not only laughs but respect. He's as cool here as he was ten years ago, and that's as much of a reason to see Snakes on a Plane as the sight of an agitated serpent sinking its fangs into a pot-smoking passenger's improbably large tit. Movies like this are made for scenes like that, and Snakes on a Plane loves us enough to live up to the promise of its title. There are indeed snakes, and a plane as well, and for this, we can be thankful.