If Snakes on a Plane had snuck into theaters without an accompanying tsunami of hype, it might have come off as the cheeky, silly, ridiculous B-movie it happens to be - a late-summer guilty pleasure.
But the anticipation for the picture has attained near-Star Wars intensity, and that is something the film cannot begin to fulfill. Snakes on a Plane is neither as good nor as bad as you'd hoped it would be: It's just a mediocre exploitation picture with an inspired premise (succinctly spelled out by its title), loads of gratuitous gore, a dash of equally gratuitous nudity and enough inanities to make you wonder if Ed Wood rose from the grave to serve as a creative consultant on the project.
As practically most of the civilized world knows by now, the movie stars Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent transporting a federal witness aboard a passenger jetliner that's been booby-trapped with hundreds of poisonous snakes. The reptiles come in every shape and size imaginable and they also have a penchant for sinking their fangs into unusual places, including, but not limited to, bare breasts, eyeballs, crotches and buttocks.
One poor woman even gets it in the back of her throat when she reaches for an airsickness bag and a snake springs out of it. The titular stars of Snakes on a Plane are always popping out of unexpected places, but since practically all the serpents in the movie are either computer-generated or made up of cheap-looking rubber, they are rarely, if ever, frightening.
Director David R. Ellis (Cellular, Final Destination 2) tries to make up for the lack of scares by doling out the gross-outs and he certainly succeeds there: There is a good reason why Snakes on a Plane made the cover of a recent issue of Fangoria.
But aside from a sequence involving a gigantic boa constrictor that reaches just the right level of hysterical snake-antics, most of Snakes on a Plane is curiously listless. The jetliner setting, which seemed so promising on paper, wears out its novelty very quickly (it's only effective near the end, after the pilots are taken out and the movie edges into Airport/Airplane! territory).
The dialogue occasionally lives up to expectations, but lines such as "Why, exactly, are there snakes on this plane?" or "Only one guy could arrange this many illegal snakes!" turn out to be the exception rather than the rule.
Even Jackson disappoints, looking as bored and detached as he did playing a Jedi Knight in the last three Star Wars movies. Yes, he does recite the already-infamous line that incorporates dual use of a certain 12-letter word. But although the audience at the Thursday night screening I attended cheered the moment, the enthusiasm seemed to be more out of obligation than anything else.
Snakes on a Plane only attains the hoped-for so-bad-it's-good frisson in its opening 15 minutes, a hilariously breathless rush of set-up and exposition involving a kickboxing villain, a gangland execution and an anti-climactic shoot-out that all feels like you're fast-forwarding through a Lethal Weapon movie. Ironically, it's when the airplane finally takes off that the movie begins to sink. Its title will probably become immortal, but the film itself is better left imagined than actually seen.