(Directed by Luis Llosa)
(Written by Hans Bauer, Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.)
(Starring Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight and Ice Cube)
Plot: A documentary filmmaking crew take a boat down a river in the Amazon Rain-forest in order to locate a lost tribe, but instead come across giant, man-eating anacondas.
Ugh, I’m getting so old, as I remember watching “Anaconda” when it first coiled around theaters back when I was only 11 years old. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast, even though I am eating it as I type this, but I can somehow remember my experience of a giant snake relentlessly chasing Jennifer Lopez- because anacondas don’t want none unless you got buns hun. I recall feeling an intense level of unease throughout its entire runningtime though…because my (now former) Step Mother had taken us to the theater and she was so unhappy with the level of violence that she was constantly walking out. I was afraid she would decide that this was too much for children and take us home! My memory has also retained excited conversations I shared with my friends at school, as everyone my age was seemingly in love with this movie. During art class, we all attempted to draw the infamous shot of the Anaconda on the waterfall, which did not please our teacher. The point is, “Anaconda” was a big part of my childho- er, 11th year of living…so revisiting it after so many years made me feel very nostalgic. But part of me was wary of going on this adventure once more, because “Anaconda” was really just a brief (if intense) phase in my life and after seeing it a few times on VHS, I moved on to the next stupid thing I liked as a kid. Now that I am 30 years old, I am aware that it was ravaged by critics, with even horror fans mostly being dismissive. I was afraid that this trip down nostalgia lane would end with me turning on a film I once adored, such as with “Leprechaun” or “Puppet Master“- and it takes very little these days to set off my ‘Post “Puppet Master” Stress Disorder‘. So did the easily entertained child in me defeat the cynical adult that I’ve become?
No, but only because my two halves signed a peace treaty, which allows me to say that “Anaconda” is OK- neither inspiring the love I felt for it as a kid, nor the disdain I’m supposed to have for it as an adult. But it absolutely forbids me to be so soft on the sequels, which is easy because I’ve only seen “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid“, which was boring. And also very boring. And apparently better than the following sequels! “Anaconda” was produced during a strange time in the 90’s where horror flicks were commanding impressive budgets and it really shows with the transparently puppet animatronics and weightless CGI. Yeah, the effects in “Anaconda” could’ve aged more gracefully, but they don’t look too terrible by todays standards. At the absolute least, the phoniness never distracted me from the action and I didn’t even mind the shifts between the CGI and practical effects. “Jumangi“, “Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace“, “Lake Placid” and even “Deep Blue Sea” seem a lot more dated with their use of CGI, especially when used alongside the prosthetics, even though they’re arguably superior films (overall). But even if you’re not impressed by the snakes, there are other aspects of the production values that should catch your attention. For all I know, the limited sets were simply real boats and an abandoned sawmill that the crew stumbled upon, but they do have this haunting, rusty aura that contrasts with the colorful backdrop of the Amazon Rainforest. I also think it’s really cool that they filmed on location, whereas these days they would use a green-screen and much of the mystique and authenticity of the locale would be gone. The cast is also intriguing, as they hired a combination of performers, ranging from veterans of the screen to big name celebrities to pop stars to rising talents…and yet the acting is STILL not very ‘good’. You have Jon Voight (the big name), Jennifer Lopez (the singer), Ice Cube (the rapper), Eric Stoltz (the heart throb), Jonathan Hyde (character actor who was in EVERYTHING during this time period) and Owen Wilson (comedian), but a lot of them seem kind of uncomfortable with this material. Interestingly, Danny Trejo has a cameo and Kari Wuhrer arguably turns in the most sincere performance…even though her career would never rise beyond being a Scream Queen (although she’s become legendary amongst us horror geeks). Yet at the same time, everyone has enough chemistry that I found myself enjoying their interactions. Plus, Jon Voight is so delightfully hammy that you just can’t be drawn to that sleazy smile and obviously evil dimeanor. I’d totally let him on my ship too, because even if he conspired to kill me, at least he would be entertaining in doing so. I’m going to blame the director for the questionable acting, as it seems like everyone had conflicting visions as to whether they were supposed to be taking this seriously or winking at the camera…and in some cases, the actors literally wink at the camera…
Actually, that in many ways defines the problem with “Anaconda“, as it doesn’t seem like the director had a consistent, overarching vision. Was this supposed to be scary? Or was it supposed to be silly? The tone shifts so often that it becomes difficult to feel any suspense or amusement, because one is always getting in the way of the other. There is some genuine tension as the characters trek through murky waters, unsure what horrors lurk underneath. Even Sarone (Jon Voight), for all of his campy mannerisms, is very intimidating and some of his actions are quite disturbing to behold. The film also has an intense mean streak, as the characters are usually killed in truly horrific ways, pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. The infamous ‘swallowing whole’ climactic kill gave me nightmares back in 1997, but still held some power over me as an adult, as it stimulates fear of claustrophobic spaces and body horror…and being eaten alive by giant, f@cking snakes… Yet “Anaconda” can never maintain that momentum because an actor will start mugging for the camera or will say a silly one-liner (“Asshole in one!“), which breaks the tension (NOT a good thing in this genre!). Plus, while the snake effects aren’t bad, they are often captured in unflattering, corny angles and the over-the-top sound design is too cheesy to take seriously. The Anaconda roaring and squealing reminded me of the shark roaring in “Jaws: The Revenge“. Yet I will also admit to laughing at some of the exchanges, such as when Danny (Ice Cube) and Westridge (Jonathan Hyde) threaten each-other. When this was first released, my entire school was quoting the “I’ll kill you for $50/”I’ll kill you for free” lines, even my teachers! Comedy and horror can work very well together, but it requires a lot of planning, synergy and luck, such as with “Tremors“- which was funny and scary. I suspect that “Anaconda” initially was intended to inspire “Jaws“-like terror, primarily based on the slow burn first half. Yet somewhere along the line, the cast and crew began to realize it just wasn’t working, so decided to inject some humor, but it was too late for “Anaconda” to adjust to an identity. Yet…for me, it only keeps the film from being something exceptional. I still enjoyed “Anaconda” and despite taking its time, it still moves at a steady pace and picks up a lot of speed during the second half. I was consistently entertained, even if the reasons why weren’t consistent.
The script is ripe with all the cliches you would expect, many of them inducing intense rolling of the eyeballs, especially when someone does something incredibly stupid in order to drive the plot. These characters are not the brightest knives in the lunchbox and the THREE writers all deserve spankings for not making the narratives’ stumbling blocks more credible. There are some glaring plot holes, like how no one considers how in the hell they will be able to take this giant snake with them. Even if they successfully tranquilized the beast, where would they keep it? I’m not entirely sure what the human antagonists evil plan was, at least in regards to the guy (Danny Trejo) in the opening scene. Was he in on this ‘conspiracy’? Was he betrayed? How? SPOILER Mateo (Vincent Castellanos) and Serone apparently planned the ruse, but I was under the impression that it was Mateos’ boat, so why did they need the film crew? Even if not, wouldn’t it be too risky to put the lives of a FILM CREW (one is apparently a celebrity of some sort) in danger? Wouldn’t him bringing back a giant snake using their boat raise some red flags? I really wanted to know how Serone put that wasp in the oxygen tank and would’ve loved to have seen his reaction if Cale (Eric Stoltz) accepted his offer to go down there himself. SPOILER ENDS. “Anaconda” is dumb, but I do like some of its attention to detail. There is a lot of foreshadowing and upon repeated viewings, you will notice characters giving meaningful stares that set up their future actions or fates. One thing which I had never noticed before was that during the opening scene, you can see a corpse blending in with the foreground. Who was this person? How did he die? HOW DID I NEVER TAKE NOTICE OF THAT?!
The direction is uneven, although I suspect he was working through a very difficult shoot. I noticed some hilarious blunders, such as when they reverse the footage to show the boat backing up, giving us the surreal sight of a waterfall falling…upwards? Ice Cube buries an axe in a snakes head and leaves it there, but he’s obviously still carrying it afterwards and drops it before walking away. They do crop the image to cover this up, but it’s still very obvious. Characters exit water completely dry, perhaps as a homage to “Jaws: The Revenge” (now the roaring snakes make sense!). There are an army of continuity errors, suggesting that they were making a lot up as they went along and didn’t have time to check the footage they had already shot. Yet “Anaconda” is fairly atmospheric, enough to where I practically started to feel the humidity which the characters were experiencing. The ambiance helped draw me in and felt like I was part of this boat-trip to hell. The Amazon Rainforest setting alternates between beautiful and sinister, depending on how the DOP lights the scene. The cinematography in general is usually very good and at the absolute least, “Anaconda” does boast some very nice aesthetics- ignoring the snakes themselves. There are some stylish visuals, with the ‘swallowed whole’ sequence even being partially shot from INSIDE THE SNAKE (eek!). “Anaconda” has a lot of strengths and a lot of weaknesses, but I did think it was a fun movie, even if it wasn’t the bundle of awesomeness I remembered as a kid…But do you know what? Outside of the quality, I did remember most of the content within the film, so at least “Anaconda” stands out. The movie might’ve failed with critics, but my age group adored it and it was a box office hit, launching careers and spawning sequels. Is this the first horror movie to cast a rapper in a prominent, safe role? This would eventually become an obnoxious trend, but I can’t remember an earlier example, which might make “Anaconda” an innovator in its own way…Thanks for that…As for the sequels, “Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid” was dull and I have no desire to see the rest, as they were excreted by the Scyfy channel. “Anaconda 3” has…David…Hasslehoff???? DAVID HASSLEHOFF FIGHTING SNAKES?! THAT SOUNDS AWESOME. There was a fourth one, with Robert…Englund?! WHY!? WHY HAVE I NOT SEEN THIS!? I then learned that there is even a “Lake Placid Vs Anaconda“, so I watched the trailer, which boasts the line: “And the hunt is on for their favorite food- Sorority girls“…God damn it, I need to see these movies…The truce is over! CIVIL WAR HAS BEGUN WITHIN ME!
Violence: PG-13, but it probably could’ve been rated R.
Nudity: None, but there is a little bit of sexuality.
Overall: “Anaconda” is dumb, but it did entertain me and successfully shielded itself with nostalgia.