Movie Review - Snake Gas

Some literary masterpieces are so strong that they continue to reverberate decades after they were first published. That is the case with Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, which helped define the Western vision of colonialism and influenced hundreds of subsequent works of art. Snake Gas (Hadí plyn) is the most recent film inspired by Heart of Darkness, examining racism, misogyny, and immigration in Europe via Conrad’s powerful novel. Unfortunately, director David Jaab fails to capture the same captivating intensity of Conrad’s original novel, resulting in an experimental picture that frequently falls short of expectations.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one of the most influential pieces of literature ever written, was released in the late nineteenth century. The plot revolves around a riverboat captain who must travel into an African jungle to save a trade post agent. Throughout the expedition, the captain is confronted with concerns of power and morality, as well as the realization that there is little difference between so-called civilized men and the local inhabitants of the area. Heart of Darkness became a book that has persisted for a purpose due to its unflinching investigation of human nature.

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Snake Gas, based on this, transforms Eastern Europe into a wilderness that an Occidental man must traverse. The plot follows Robert Klein (Stanislav Majer) as he looks for his missing brother, who vanished during a bizarre labor expedition in a Balkan nature reserve. Robert hasn’t communicated with his brother in years, but he nevertheless resolves to take a risky journey across swamplands and dirt roads in the hopes of discovering what happened to the missing guy. Similarly to Conrad’s tale, Robert will be challenged with basic concerns about our nature and our interaction with the environment around us on his journey.

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It’s difficult to see Snake Gas without thinking about Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which brilliantly exploited Conrad’s book to highlight American Imperialism during the Vietnam War. Jaab, like Coppola before him, utilizes the form of Conrad’s novel to examine a different sort of confrontation between “civilized” people and indigenous, this time addressing Western Europe’s preconceptions towards the East. Furthermore, the film aims to investigate the complexity of the mass immigration of African people, who are frequently treated as second-class citizens and denied basic rights. It’s a noble ambition and the ideal excuse to remake Conrad. Unfortunately, Snake Gas prioritizes aesthetics over content and tells an uninteresting narrative.

Snake Gas has a complex undercurrent, with a protagonist who is far from heroic and frequently echoes the Occidental world’s aggressive patriarchal posture. The film also attempts to address the invasive presence of transnational corporations in the region, human predatory behavior towards natural resources, and government institutions’ inability to safeguard nature reserves. There is also a clear goal to investigate the philosophical tension between instincts that govern people’s behavior and societal constraints that limit our desires while feeding biases. Finally, there’s a lot of talk about immigration and the neocolonialism that Africans face when they come to Europe in search of better living circumstances.

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Snake Gas contains many intriguing ideas, but this rapidly becomes a problem. With so many difficult problems entwined throughout the tale, any director would struggle to create a cohesive narrative that would keep spectators interested. However, what makes Snake Gas even more inaccessible is Jaab’s apparent preoccupation with the presentation of each scene rather than the overall cohesiveness. As a result, the film is peppered with dreamy episodes that serve to communicate a concept but have little bearing on the main tale. To make matters worse, there is no obvious signal of what is genuine and what is an illusion, resulting in temporal leaps that can be perplexing and annoying.

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Snake Gas aims to test its listeners, therefore it avoids any clarity on purpose, relying on convoluted dialogues that employ ambiguous pronouns and characters who keep mundane facts hidden merely to add to the sense of mystery. While Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now both explore how entering a new region feels ethereal, this goes so far that the picture becomes opaque at moments.

Snake Gas can be visually stunning, with Oleg Mutu’s cinematography capturing our attention long after we’ve lost interest in the tale. As a result, it feels like an experimental film that, sadly, runs too long for its own sake. With Snake Gas’ tumultuous tale dealing with so many important subjects, one has to consider if this was the ideal strategy for such a specialized undertaking.

Rating: D