You can't scream if you can't breathe.
From the opening crawl:
Anacondas are among the most ferocious—and enormous—creatures on earth, growing, in certain cases, as long as 40 feet. Unique among snakes, they are not satisfied after eating a victim. They will regurgitate their prey in order to kill and eat again.
Facts of the Case
Smug know-it-all academic Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz, Some Kind of Wonderful) leads a filming expedition into the depths of the Amazon (the big river in South America, not the dot-com book-and-DVD-seller) in search of a mysterious lost tribe. (At least I think that's what he's up to. That whole lost-tribe angle gets abandoned once the snakes start showing up.) At his side is the following motley collection of constrictor bait:
• Terri Flores (Jennifer "J-Lo" Lopez of Enough, who probably signed on when this picture was still called Puff Adder Daddy), an up-and-coming film director and Cale's main squeeze. She's here to earn her designated parking space at the Columbia backlot.
• Danny Rich (Ice Cube, All About The Benjamins), Terri's cinematographer and former classmate at USC Film School. He's here to glower and talk tough.
• Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde, The Tailor Of Panama), your stock uppity Englishman. He's here to narrate Terri's film and generally annoy everyone.
• Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums), the sound technician. He's here to make kissy-face with…
• Denise Kalberg (Kari Wuhrer, Eight Legged Freaks, TV's Sliders), the production manager. She's mostly here to look great in khaki shorts.
• Mateo (Vincent Castellanos, Mulholland Drive), the riverboat pilot. Let's see: No last name. Ethnic. The movie's about giant snakes that eat people. I think you can guess what Mateo's here for.
As their floating film studio winds its merry way down the Big Muddy, Dr. Cale, Terri and crew pick up an unsavory hitchhiker: Paul Sarone (Jon Voight, impersonating so perfectly Mandy Patinkin's pseudo-Castilian accent from The Princess Bride that I kept expecting him to say, "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."). Sarone purports to be a harmless Paraguayan seminary drop-out who captures serpents for a living and knows the Amazon basin like the back of his hand. (Here's a diversion for your next cocktail party: when Bill the office lush says, "I know [fill in the blank] like the back of my hand," challenge him to describe, in explicit detail, the back of his hand. Much hilarity will ensue.)
From the point that Sarone joins the party, Judge Rankins's Three Rules of Amazon Survival come into play:
Rule #1: If you sail past a gnarled tree with vultures perched in it, bad
stuff is about to happen.
Remember monster movies? The kind theaters used to play as Saturday matinees, and that filled the early-morning weekend hours in the infancy of cable TV? Anaconda is a monster movie. It's as predictable as the new moon and spring tides, but that's okay: the formula is part of the fun. You can tell in the first five minutes who's going to get eaten/slaughtered/otherwise dispatched. All that matters is the execution.
Anaconda, directed by Peruvian Luis Llosa (The Specialist Sniper), is executed pretty well. It's steadily paced, suspenseful (if not at all frightening), and the scenery—lushly captured by veteran cinematographer Bill Butler (The Conversation, Jaws)—is magnificent.
What isn't executed well at all are the title reptiles themselves. Although a horde of real live creepy-crawlers slither past as infant-stage anacondas, the big fellas are always either computer generated or animatronic, and neither is convincing. The CGI snakes look like something out of a Chuck Jones cartoon. The animatronics look like refugees from the Disneyland Jungle Cruise. I'm sure the budget for this flick wasn't in the league of, say, Emmerich and Devlin's lame Godzilla remake, but surely Llosa could have rounded up some young eager-beavers in the art department who'd have done a more effective job than this.
Llosa throws all of the requisite monster movie thrills at us, and we love them. Like most of the better flicks in this genre, Anaconda doesn't take itself too seriously. It plays most of its calculated shocks with a wink—literally, in one instance—and never lets us forget that the reason we see movies like this is because they're fun. The director tries some spiffy camera stunts—the point-of-view shot from inside the gullet of a feeding anaconda is slick—but most of the time he's content just to take us on this foray into the wilderness and try to scare the pants off us with his snake-handling parlor tricks.
The actors are competent and seem to be enjoying their rollercoaster ride, particularly Jon Voight, who stretches the boundaries of self-parody with his snaky (pun intended) serpent hunter. Voight is rapidly becoming one of those actors—Christopher Walken is another—who plays every role with delirious, over-the-top abandon to the point that it's hard to find him truly menacing anymore. But he's the most enjoyable ingredient in this steamy rainforest stew…when Ms. Lopez is off-camera, that is. She's still feeling her way around her acting chops at this early (1997) stage in her cinematic career, but the camera loves her. The rest of the snake fodder just tries to stay out of Voight and Lopez's way. (Eric Stoltz is so good at this that he vanishes for huge stretches of the movie.)
Why Columbia TriStar selected Anaconda as its latest "Superbit Collection" title is beyond me, unless you think that seeing J-Lo parade past the lens at a higher bitrate is somehow a dramatic improvement. Yes, the picture quality is excellent—sharp, vibrant, lusciously colorful and digital artifact-free, though there's a disturbing amount of graininess in the source print. Yes, the soundtrack is close to reference-standard—every jungle screech and crackle is meticulously preserved in an expansive soundfield. But this is a still a medium-budget monster movie with laughably bad special effects.
Lavishing a turbocharged presentation on Anaconda seems a waste of effort (what's next—Ssssss: Superbit Collection?), particularly since the Superbit format precludes the kind of extras fans might really pay to have pitched in—a commentary track (Voight might have been a kick), a documentary with plenty of Jennifer Lopez footage, J-Lo and Ice Cube videos. Instead we get a DTS track (play 'em if you've got 'em), subtitles in a zillion languages (they don't eat up much disc space), and that's about all.
Incidentally, isn't it time we laid this whole Superbit charade to rest? Please?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a nifty opening sequence featuring familiar character actor Danny Trejo (Con Air, Spy Kids) snatching a quick paycheck. This appears to be a growing trend in Hollywood—using a well-known if not superstar-quality actor in a pre-credits cameo only to have him disappear for the rest of the film. (Anthony Michael Hall's walk-on in All About the Benjamins is another, more recent example.)
The best South American water creature feature since Piranha. But Jennifer Lopez is no Heather Menzies. Which is, I think, a good thing. Though I had this serious Heather Menzies crush during the TV version of Logan's Run. But I digress. (Eric Stoltz may, however, be the second coming of Bradford Dillman.)
It's tasty. It's J-Lo. It's regurgitation. It's giant snakes gulping people like they were Soylent Green. It's Jon Voight gulping scenery like he's headed for Jenny Craig at the end of shooting. It's more ham (Voight) and more cheese (the effects staff) than a dozen Egg McMuffins. It's hot Amazon jungle monkey love. (Okay, it's not. But it's still tasty.)
Call Anaconda a guilty pleasure. We're adjourned.
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