|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 20 January 1998|
This serpentine variation on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was a shrewdly-conceived, well-marketed hit. With a better cast than this kind of material usually gets, and pretty good direction by Luis Llosa, the movie provides some lively, suspenseful entertainment, even if it remains not much more plausible than, say, GODZILLA. Snakes just don't do the things the big anacondas in this movie do.
After a prolog in which a man on a boat on a tropical river is terrorized by some unseen creature, killing himself rather than facing it, on the Amazon River in Brazil, we meet documentary filmmaker Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez) and her scientist partner Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz) are preparing to head upriver to look for a mysterious lost tribe of Indians, the People of the Mist. (About whom you can promptly forget.) Also on the boat are cameraman Danny Rich (Ice Cube), assistants Denise Kalber and Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson), and the owner-captain of the boat, Mateo (Vincent Castellanos).
They've gone some distance up the Amazon when, in a rainstorm, they encountered stranded Paul Sarone (Jon Voight), who has a ripe accent (he's supposedly from Uruguay, which explains everything, I guess), a pony tail and a weird attitude. He explains that he trained for the priesthood, but now he's essentially an Amazon River rat who traps animals for zoos.
One of the few genuinely clever elements in the basically routine script by Hans Bauer and Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr. is that Sarone's real agenda is hidden until after the bad stuff gets under way. It turns out he's manipulated all of them into being just where he wants them to be, so he can capture a huge anaconda, one of those worshiped by the People of the Mist. (This nonsense about the People of the Mist is one of the more irritating aspects of the film. They're utterly unnecessary to the story.)
Trouble is that these anacondas, giant snakes related to boa constrictors, don't want to be caught. In fact, they want to catch the people, and they do, one by one, mostly in reverse order of billing. It should be noted that (a) there's no evidence that anacondas get large enough to swallow people, (b) when they eat something good-sized it takes them a long time; (c) after such a meal they lie around relaxing for several weeks; (d) they can't move as fast as they're shown in the movie; (e) they may hiss loudly, but they don't roar like lions -- no vocal cords. These are the kinds of problems you run into when you make a monster movie in which the monster is a real animal.
But few who saw ANACONDA gave a damn about the facts in the case. All they wanted were cool, exciting scenes of giant snakes lashing through the water, leaping into waterfalls, swallowing cast members and chasing the rest. And after the halfway mark, that's almost entirely what ANACONDA consists of. There's some business with Voight being revealed as a villain and taking over the expedition, but that's just to get everyone to where the snakes can get them, and to occupy time when the snakes are off screen.
The characterizations are broad and colorful; sometimes this works, delightfully, as with Voight's slicing off a thick slice of ham for his role, sometimes it doesn't, as with Jonathan Hyde haplessly cast as a guy we know is a stinker (though not a villain) because he has an English accent, sneers at the tropics, and insists on practicing golf under unlikely conditions. He doesn't even, gasp, like rap. Voight is the Nicolas Cage of his generation, a superbly talented actor who doesn't always make the right choices, either in roles or performances, but who, when he's on screen, you can't take your eyes off. Here, he's tremendous fun, even more so than the mechanical and CGI snakes; he has one of the most ghoulish last moments in movie history, best not described in an interview. But watch for that wink.
The snakes -- there are two, one much bigger than the other, which was plenty damned big already -- are generally well done, though fidelity to the faces of real anacondas gives these coiling monsters an amusingly cross-eyed appearance. Because of their eerie shape and expressionless faces, snakes look menacing even when they're peaceful; the snakes in ANACONDA are never peaceful.
Luis Llosa began with Roger Corman, and with Katt Shea of his generation, emerged into mainstream films, though his career has been spotty. He can't seem to generate much long-lasting suspense in ANACONDA, partly a result of the awkwardly-structured script, but in brief sequences, he does drum up a fair amount of immediate tension. The movie is never as smart as it wants to be, and the characters are routine. But the very idea of being engulfed by a giant snake, swallowed whole while you're still alive (and in a lot of pain from having been crushed down to swallowable dimensions), suffuses the last half of the film. And many people find snakes intrinsically creepy, with their lack of legs and their blank-eyed stares.
The climax is pretty unlikely, but staged in an exciting manner, with captures, escapes, hungry snakes and exploding smokestacks. One attraction of the DVD is, of course, Jennifer Lopez, who's gone from good supporting player to superstar in the last year or so. Here, she's really just one of the players, thought she is also the movie's main character, the heroine to Ice Cube's hero.
The extras are the usual minimum: alternate language tracks, trailer, scene selections; the movie did well enough that it's surprising Columbia didn't bother to gussy up the disc with a few more elements. A tour of the special effects would have been nice; at least a few outtakes could have been slipped in. But it's well-produced, and will probably provide much the same squirmy fun for most at home as it did for most in theaters.