It is, as you might suspect, very much in the tradition of that genre of socially aware, psychologically insightful films of the 1960s that Truffaut called cinema du serpent, that wave of deeply cynical yet also powerfully humanist works that rocked the sensibilities of adventurous moviegoers during a period of political uncertainty and cultural upheaval, asked them to reconsider man’s supposed ascendancy to a place of alleged dominance of the planet. And so it is again with Snakes on a Plane, David R. Ellis’s meditation on the primal fears that hold in their viselike grip even the most “civilized” and “modern” of us puny primates. Yes, this is a superb contemporary example of cinema du serpent, wittily harkening back to its thematic progenitors, but it is a marvelous achievement in its own right, too, laying the ground — dare we hope? — for a resurrection of the genre, a new postironic exploration of humanity’s relationship to our greatest mythological foe.
As with the classic entries in cinema du serpent, the situation in SoaP is inherently absurd, a deliberate extrapolation of nightmarish hyperbole, consciously stretching credulity to a near breaking point in an attempt to lower the viewer’s intellectual defenses. Here, we have FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, XXX: State of the Union) — a clever reference to the “police officer” in Bergman’s Snok ovanpå träng — transporting a witness in a federal mob case from Honolulu to Los Angeles by air. Airline security being what it is in the early 21st century, there is no way even a well-connected and wealthy criminal like the one Flynn’s charge will testify against will be able to smuggle onboard a bomb or an assassin with a gun to take out that witness. But — and oh, the cleverness of Ellis’s (Cellular, Final Destination 2) screenwriters, John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez, and David Dalessandro (The Big Bounce, Gothika) — there are deadly things no dog has been trained to sniff out, no security guard has been told to confiscate: snakes.
So the snakes appear over the Pacific, bursting from their hiding place in the cargo hold to sow discord and disharmony among the diverse band of passengers aboard Pacific Air Flight 121. SoaP can be seen as a reworking of both Truffaut’s own Le reptile dans l’avion, in which one single snake, a metaphoric bringer of existential doubt and ennui, disrupts the emotional equilibrium of the estranged couple journeying together to the wedding of their only son — here, it’s the famous rapper whose cool is blown by the appearance of the snakes — and Fellini’s Confusione sullo serpentes su treno, his lavishly over-the-top surrealist comedy about slithering reptiles harassing a traveling clown revue; the mad dash among the passengers to escape the snakes by climbing to the first-class deck is a play on Fellini’s famous “pile of jesters” scene.
Ellis effortlessly ensures that the viewer’s emotional reactions become confused, a disconcerting amalgam of laughter and screams as humor and horror cross paths in an intensely profound discourse on the fragility of life and the brittleness of our physical beings: beautiful young lovers who retreat to the seclusion and intimacy of an airplane restroom find death as well as passion; their demise at the nonexistent mercy of the snakes is both grotesque and, frankly, hilarious. Because the ridiculousness of the entire mise-en-scène has punched past our rational minds and accessed, ironically, our reptilian hindbrain, seat of the deepest terrors of ourselves as a species, we are putty in Ellis’s hands: if he wants to make death a joke, we will find it amusing. (And as in Buñuel’s Culebra de l’autobús escolar, innocent children are not immune the menace of cold-blooded — and cold-hearted — reptiles, or of Ellis’s penetrating philosophy about the harsh hand of Fate; truly, there is no escape for anyone here.) Cruelly, Ellis forces us to acknowledge not only the razor’s edge between life and death on which we all walk all the time, but also how readily we discard our own sense of basic human decency to chortle at the pain of our fellows. It is a devastating comedown for the viewer.
But Ellis is not done with us yet. In this high-tech variant on Kurosawa’s Gojira o nibasha (Godzilla on a Cart) — in which peasants grown overconfident in their farming skills take a beating from the big reptile — we are dared to confront our own arrogance as technological beings. We think, Ellis seems to suggest, that because we can float 250 metric tons of steel and electronics and people eight miles up we are all-powerful, and yet see how the lowliest of creatures reduces us to preverbal whimpering.
As is ever the case with cinema du serpent, though, the psychological claustrophobia of being driven into the remotest regions of our minds and the depths of our own collective mythology is balanced by hope as represented by sophisticated dichotomy: this is how the snakes will be defeated, by resolving the dualities of black and white, of male and female, as represented by Flynn and flight attendant Claire Miller (Julianna Margulies: Ghost Ship, Evelyn), which then allows for the reintegration of enlightened reason with the deepest-seated of ancient terrors. It is a triumphant moment here, as it always has been in cinema du serpent, as rationality reasserts itself first in the hero, Flynn, as he proclaims, at long last, “Enough is enough — I’ve had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!”
Truffaut woulda fuckin’ loved it.