Monday, May 18, 2009

Snakes on a Plane

So guess what's on TV. It's Snakes on a Plane. I've never seen this movie but I've been watching way too many episodes of Mayday lately, so I'm all revved up for bad acting and overstated dire emergencies. I know it's possibly the stupidest movie on earth, but can it be stupider than an China Airlines crew nearly destroying a Boeing 747 because they couldn't keep it right side up after losing power in one engine? I'm about to find out. And so are you unless you stop reading, because I thoroughly spoil any movie I blog about. Much like the movie, this occassionally devolves into random scenes and pithy remarks.

I knew it was a bad movie, but still, it doesn't start well. I almost turned it off because I thought it was the wrong movie. It starts with a violent scene where a Hawaiian surfer dude witnesses the revenge killing by gangsters of a public official. The justification for the rest of the movie involves the surfer being taken under police protection to LA to testify. The titular snakes are apparently the bad guys' best shot at offing this witness. I would have thought a movie this crazy could get away with no justification whatsoever, and considering this scene I would have preferred that.

In order to get the witness to LAX, the FBI protection dude, played by Samuel L. Jackson commandeers the entire First Class section of a Boeing 747 passenger flight. This is, according to the movie, permitted by an FAA regulation that says the FBI can do whatever they like. I gave it a few points there just for trying, and I suspect that my flight attendant readers can confirm that the behaviour of the displaced Premium Club fliers was true to life.

We see the bad guy communicating with his agent. He apparently has the power to have dozens of illegal deadly poisonous snakes from all over the globe loaded on a plane in Hawaii at short notice. (It's illegal for private individuals to import or own snakes in Hawaii). He has the access required to spray all the farewell leis with attack-inducing snakes pheromones. But apparently that's the only last best desperate move he can make against our hapless witness.

I even gave them a few points here for handwaving the special snake pheromone and not just pretending that snakes prefer hunting down, lunging and biting people over lying quietly in warm places and digesting the food they've already got. But I was forced to take the points away later when they belaboured the point several times, each one more and more blatantly, until they got down to explaining what pheromones are. So this is an all access movie. Everything is set up, Let the snakes roll.

The flight attendants were depicted much more competently than is typical in movies. I don't think any of them succumbed to screaming in panic, and they had some sass, too. There's an exchange I liked after the sole occupants of first class noticed some hostility from one FA. Jackson's character calls her on it.

She's still ticked about having to put up with the bitchiness of all the Premium Club fliers she had to deny F-class seating too. Another time, she suggests, "You people give us some warning."

"You people?" says Jackson archly. Even though it's completely obvious to everyone that "you people" meant the FBI, Jackson forces her to realize that she's used a term (she's white and he's black) that can be used to lump everyone with the same sort of skin together in one stereotype.

I'd want to roll my eyes and tell him he knew perfectly well what she meant, but the FA backs down. She doesn't get an apology out before Jackson admits that he's joking. I thought it was clever, and it set the race relations tone for the movie. It reminded me of a piece I heard on the radio where a woman described people saying "oh I don't care if you're black or blue or red or green. I just see people." The woman pointed out that that there aren't red or blue people and by saying that, you were denying an important thing about her. I can appreciate that. I guess it has shades of "I don't care if someone is a man or a woman, now shut up and act like a man." Equality shouldn't mean that everyone has to become just like the people they are now allowed to be equal to.

Yes, I'm managing to squeeze social relevance out of a movie that features passengers getting attacked by snakes while making out in an airplane toilet stall. It's not like I was too busy contemplating the complex plot and message of the movie to have time to think about other things.

We cut to the snakes, somewhere in an avionics bay, ferociously biting the electrical wiring. Naturally, sparks arc wildly off the avionics and I'd laugh, but I've had that happen to me, showers of sparks right in front of where I sat in flight, coming out of a hole in the instrument panel. It wasn't all that funny then, although it turned out to be one loose wire from a deferred inoperative eyebrow light. So I can't say the Star Trek-style fireworks were unrealistic. We now cut to the cockpit.

One of the pilots announces, "We've just lost avionics." It looks like they did, too. The whole panel goes dark. One snake and they lose all cockpit avionics. Nasty. You'd think they'd have more redundancy in the B747 electrical system. Oh wait, I'm not watching Mayday anymore.

"Notify LAX," commands the captain. And so he does. Um, if they've lost avionics, what does he call them with? Apparently the radios are on a separate circuit that they don't consider to be avionics. At first I thought that seeing as he's calling LAX and not Center they must be pretty close to landing, but he position reports 1500 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles. I applaud him for tracking his position manually, so as not to depend on avionics for that information. And apparently he's so confident in his no-avionics navigation that he's going to continue to LAX even though that position puts him only a third of the way there. I suppose it's a lot harder to miss the coast of California than the Hawaiian Islands when flying by dead reckoning. Or he has a heck of a tailwind. It's such a no-brainer decision for him in fact, that not only is there is no cockpit discussion on the matter, but ATC doesn't even ask his intentions. I believe the whole conversation shown was:

Pilot: Mayday. We have lost avionics.

ATC: Roger. You have have priority.

Priority for anything, apparently. Oh and they still have autopilot function, too. I'm thinking maybe someone just turned the brightness down on the multifunction displays. Look, Aviatrix, this movie is not about command decisions and aircraft circuitry. It's about snakes. On a plane.

Back to the snakes. Now guys, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think you would normally pee in an airplane toilet while looking at neither the toilet nor the appendage channelling the pee? I would think looking ninety degrees off to the left was a recipe for getting urine all over at least the washroom and likely your pants. But nevertheless this happens, as does the completely predictable appearance and target of the snake. And apparently you can smash an airline toilet mirror with your head. I was kind of relieved to have gotten the obligatory stupid snakes biting people in the naughty bits gags out of the way fairly early on, so we can get down to snakes chasing people all over the airplane.

The captain must have decided after a while that flying a compass heading all the way to LA might be pushing it, so he's gone down to the avionics bay to investigate the failure. The giant size of an airliner crawl spaces is a given in movies, forgivable out of cinematic necessity. The captain is descending into one just as the FA shows up. I think the cabin lights had gone out too and she'd come to ask what the problem was. The captain explains that he's going to fix the problem, but he never comes out. So the FA goes into the flight deck to tell the FO that something has happened to the captain. The FO immediately gets up, to investigate too. I guess that autopilot really works. I missed a bit here, phone call or laughing too hard or something, but the FO then returns to the controls and declares another MAYDAY, informing Los Angeles that the pilot in command has suffered a fatal heart attack. Wow. He went down there and autopsied him already. Los Angeles is as unimpressed with this emergency as they were with the original one. The FO does mention in passing that it is now shorter to continue than it would be to turn around, so we're making good time.

There are a couple of cute kids on the airplane, of course. They're even wearing UM (unaccompanied minor) necktags. It was an unexpectedly authentic touch. Maybe the aviation technical advisor on this picture was a flight attendant. That would fit with everything. FA competence, a thorough passenger briefing, FAs have the run of the airplane, picture depicts what they have to put up with, but has them come out on top. I love the scene where an FA steps on a coral snake to immobilize it, then deftly picks it up by the tail, slings it in the microwave, and sets the oven to quick cook for 2:10. My favourite part is that he needs not a moment's hesitation to know how long to nuke a snake. This is a professional at work.

There's a bitchy first class passenger with a little dog in her handbag. The dog meets a bad end, which is too bad. It was at least as smart as some of the passengers. It was a shame no one had a mongoose in her handbag.

Oookay, they're going to build a snakeproof barrier out of carry-on baggage. I don't have to tell you how that works out. Ahh, I've just realized that that is a special effect, not something going occasionally wrong with my TV. We get to see some of the scenes in snake-o-vision, overlayed with green prismy lines, from the point of view of the hormone-crazed snakes. Wait, are these poisonous snakes or snakes that cause fatal bleeding wounds? Everyone who has been bitten by a snake is marked with a lot of blood.

Oh why is the FO still running around the cabin?



We have to suck out the poison. I should have seen that coming. They're using the airfone to communicate with a snake expert who has a remarkable command of logistics. In the scene with the snake expert and the FBI guy it's as if their dialogue hadn't been marked with who was supposed to say what and they were just randomly sharing a script. Each character seemed to fluctuate randomly in intensity, command and knowledge of snakes. We get the idea, however, that this is a whole lot of very dangerous snakes from all over the world, and our expert knows that there's only one man that could have got this many snakes onto this plane. And it's important to know what kind of snake someone was bitten by, because you give them the wrong antivenom and they'll die. There's a passenger on board who is a competent and experienced snake venom sucker-outer. Olive oil. You can get an incoming call on an airfone?

"Hey," I suggest to the TV, "how about using a digital camera to photograph person with snake, so we know who was bitten by what." They take my idea and they do it one better. They are going to e-mail the pictures to the expert. Using an internet connection with an acoustic modem over the airfone, I guess. I know some airlines are now experimenting with internet on board, now, but when this movie came out? Available technology is kinda fluid here. And good lord there's a lot of breakable glass on this 747.

They now have abnormal vibrations on engines one and two. I wonder if it's snakes.

The aircraft is heating up. It's apparently because they have "lost power to the outflow valve motor." That's related to pressurization. The breaker for that is down in the cargo hold with the snakes. So presumably the outflow valve motor is stuck wherever it was when the motor failed. I'm guessing the valve isn't stuck open, or else they'd have trouble holding pressure. Masks haven't deployed and the cabin temperature is rising. But the outflow valve is normally closed in cruise. There's enough leakage that the cabin would depressurize with it closed anyway. But if we're going to ignore that perhaps we can make a new outflow aperture by firing a bullet into some appropriate point in the rear fuselage. That would be suitable for this movie. Presumably the FO can advise you on this.

The next line of the movie after I have these thoughts is, "That gun goes off in this pressurized cabin we all die." How can you talk about an outflow valve, i.e. a big hole in an airplane designed to let the air out, in one scene and then the very next scene subscribe to the "one tiny bullet hole and we all die" theory? Also a B747 has two outflow valves, a left and a right. I suspect they don't share the same motor. Maybe they should descend and depressurize. Oh wait. They're going to depressurize, but not using the checklist or the aircraft controls. When the captain said "avionics" he meant "pressurization controls." That must be it. The good guy (yes, the good guy) fires a couple of shots and shoots out two of the airplane windows. In the passenger cabin, right where people are seated. About six square metres of the fuselage around the windows departs too, turning this into a scene from yet another episode of Mayday. All the snakes are sucked out of the airplane, but the humans hang on and are not.

So now it's time for the emergency descent. Someone tell the pilot. And now after the FAs have been barging in and out of the cockpit for the whole flight, the cockpit door is locked and the armed maniac, er I mean the good guy, has to shoot it open. The FO has, of course, been eaten by snakes, so the FA puts out a call for a passenger who can fly an airplane. No one volunteers, but the famous rapper points out someone in his entourage who talks about nothing else but all the flying he has done. He does admit to having over 2000 hours. I bet to myself that it was in Microsoft Flight Simulator. I was wrong. It was on Playstation. And one of the funniest lines of the movie for me was when ATC quicky identifies this guy (from his unorthodox radio work) as a videogamer and not a pilot, and he protests, "It's not a video game. It's a flight simulator." If you ever want to annoy a flight sim enthusiast, tell them that you like to 'play' Microsoft flight simulator sometimes. That's authentic.

The would-be pilot doesn't understand the big problem. "Just give me the VOR numbers and radar vectors," he demands. They say that you laugh at the unexpected, which must explain how hard I was laughing when this movie suddenly started displaying some of what I would expect from real world aviation. He asks what runway to expect and ATC tells him they're in the process of clearing traffic so he can use any runway, but that the wind is favouring 24L. My expectations for this movie are so low I'm whooping in delight because they understand the concept of landing into the wind. They even explain that the tailwind on the straight in will have him landing too fast and lead to an overrun.

Our pilot doesn't want to turn around, though. I get the idea that he hasn't mastered turns yet. And I give the movie more points for sparing me a drawn out approach scene. We just cut to an under the fuselage shot of a pretty damned good touchdown, and then hilariously a bounce. Now a bounce is more likely to be the consequence of carrying too much airspeed, not groundspeed, but perhaps this guy has both. The tires do not disintegrate on touchdown. He goes straight off the end of the runway, and then is advised by the good guy (sitting in the right sit all this time) to turn left, in order to miss something I didn't see, because I was laughing too hard. Approach lights or an NDB antenna or something, I guess.

He somehow ends up on the apron, where ambulances storm the set. Oh no, it's not over yet. They evacuate via the slides. One of the cute kids was bitten by a snake and his brother displays a lovely crayon drawing of a cobra. "I couldn't find the snake that bit him, so I drew a picture."

And then the witness has a snake burst out of his shirt, Alien-style. WTF? And the good guy shoots him in the chest and he falls down the emergency slide. Wait what? Oh Duh. Witness is revealed to be wearing a bulletproof vest. He was shooting the snake. They really do they have every cliche ever in this movie.

That was a lot better than I expected. I might even steel myself to see Soul Plane now.


Anonymous said...

Air China is not the same thing as China Airlines! The former is the flag carrier of China, while the latter is the flag carrier of China (which is also known as Taiwan, but not officially). Strangely enough, the Communists have a much better safety record, with only one fatal accident, while Air China had somewhat more troubled history.

david said...

I think your posting was a lot more entertaining than the movie.

j said...

Airplane movies are fun!

Scott Johnson said...

...and stop calling me Shirley.

Grant (Falcon124) said...

I have a similar reaction to Die Hard 2 - last time I saw it with friends I was told to stop pointing out all the aviation flaws and go back to the 'net like a good geek :)

Some days it's just *so* hard to suspend disbelief...

The Flying Pinto said...

Your post was definitely better than the movie: ) Thanks!

Scoon said...

lol nice post aviatrix

One note though - it is not at all uncommon for guys to not look at the toilet, or our appendage while going to the toilet. In fact, quite often in bars I've seen guys stretch their arms and put them behind their heads while doing so.

Unless there was turbulence of course, or a snake hanging off your penis...

dpierce said...

... it is not at all uncommon for guys to not look at the toilet ..., said Scoon

You'll sometimes find newspapers posted open to the sports page over urinals at some bars and restaurants, to spare you the boredom of looking down.

Thanks for the MST3K version of Snakes on a Plane!

Anonymous said...

venom sucker-outer....

punch line= "Doctor says your going to DIE!"

Aviatrix said...

Re: Air China/China Airlines. Thanks for the correction. Fixed.

Sarah said...

Oh my. Aviatrix needs to get back in the air.

In the meantime, this was a pretty funny review. I'll have to add "SoaP" to the netflix queue, so as to preserve the canonical Jackson line intact. Or does Canada not mangle movie dialog to preserve decorum?

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the movie but would like to pick a couple of nits anyway.

Could you explain how the FO got eaten by a snake? They swallow their food whole. A smallish FO would require a snake about ten metres long: once full it would occupy most of the flight deck and removing it would take some effort.

Also, pheromones make things want to mate. It must've got rather crowded in the toilet. Maybe the ten-metre snake couldn't find a compatible partner so it fixated on the FO and hugged him to death?

Tony Smith said...


This is mainly because I saw this movie on a flight back from Oz to UK. No bullshit.

It was quite weird glancing up from the screen and seeing the same thing.

Keep up the blog, makes my lunchtimes so entertaining

nec Timide said...

@Anonymous Also, pheromones make things want to mate. It must've got rather crowded in the toilet. Maybe the ten-metre snake couldn't find a compatible partner so it fixated on the FO and hugged him to death?Don't know if there is an analog in snakes, doubt it because there are normally solitary hunters, but bees are famous for their attack pheromone. Pheromones have many uses.

Aviatrix said...

Could you explain how the FO got eaten by a snake?Sorry, I was being inaccurate for the sake of humour. He hadn't been consumed by the snake, just a victim, killed in that peculiar way these snakes seem to have of lacerating people. Lots of blood, dead pilot on the cockpit floor.

Anonymous said...

OK, I accept the attack pheromone for social insects, though I think sex-crazed snakes chasing the passengers would be scarier than mere aggression.

"Snakes" got 69% on Rottentomatoes and Soul Plane only 19% so Aviatrix' review would certainly be better than watching it.

Anonymous said...

SAS had internet (Boeing's connexion) on their long haul fleet 3-4 years ago. But they did not have 747s nor did they fly domestic USA routes.

Camping Chick said...

I ended up working on the set of that movie for three days as the pilot tech while the real advisor was unavailable. It must have been quite near to the end of filming as the myriad of aviation bloopers I pointed out were left intact for "filming continuity reasons." The only correction they re-filmed in my presence was after I pointed out that the pilot was speaking into the standby compass, not a microphone as was thought. I did find it rather curious that included in the bald, lead actor's traveling entourage was his personal hairstylist. I wonder what sort of qualifications one needs for that job (and that pay!)?