Anaconda directed by Luis Llosa
The unvarnished facts regarding the anaconda, the world’s largest and heaviest snake, are disconcerting enough … particularly the one species of the four known as the giant, or green, anaconda, aka Eunectes murinus. These monsters can grow to a length of nearly 30 feet and weigh in excess of over a quarter of a ton. They live for around 10 – 12 years in the wild, mainly in the watery regions near the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in South America, and subsist on a diet of fish, turtles, pigs, jaguars, deer and other wildlife … up to 40 lbs. of small wildlife a day, one solid meal satisfying them for weeks. Of course, for most people, the most salient and scarifying feature concerning these beasts is their ability to constrict the life out of their victims, after which they consume their dainties whole. Truly, a creature to be feared and avoided, despite their nonpoisonous nature. And, to be sure, an animal that would make prime fodder for any self-respecting horror movie, sticking to those actual, real-life characteristics. A film that veers wildly into the fantastic as regards these jungle dwellers, however, is the 1997 film called simply Anaconda, which turns them rather into some impossible and outlandish fantasy creation straight out of the nightmare visions of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. More on this in a moment.
In the film, the viewer encounters the members of an expedition that is currently sailing upriver from Manaus, Brazil, in the hopes of filming a documentary on the elusive, legendary tribe known as the Shirishama. Members of the sailing barge include the project’s director, Terri (Jennifer Lopez, whose breakthrough film Selena had just been released one month previously, in March, and whose 1998 film Out of Sight would really propel her into the public consciousness); cameraman Danny (Ice Cube); anthropologist Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz); a David Attenborough-type narrator, Warren Westridge, a thoroughly obnoxious jerk who turns out to be rather heroic (Jonathan Hyde); sound engineer Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson); production manager Denise Kalberg (Kari Wuhrer); and skipper/guide Mateo (Vincent Castellanos). Their journey barely gets under way before things start going wrong. Another river craft is encountered with a fouled propeller, and its sole occupant, Paraguayan snake hunter Paul Serone (Jon Voight), is allowed to come aboard. Serone tells the others that he can help them find the mythical land of the Shirishama, but disaster soon strikes when Cale is disabled in an underwater accident (a wasp had somehow become caught in his throat), forcing Serone to perform an impromptu tracheotomy of sorts on him. Cale is now in desperate need of hospitalization, and so Serone shows the others a shortcut back to civilization. But, as things turn out, the wily snake hunter has an agenda of his own, and steers our heroes into a region where resides another legend: an enormous anaconda that Serone wishes to capture and sell for a fortune. But as things soon develop, that enormous snake has decided that it is the one who will be doing the hunting here…
As I said, the anaconda is a fearsome enough critter in its own right, and had the filmmakers decided to stick with the universally dreaded night crawler that the world knows as an actuality, then things might have gone better here. Instead, we are given an animatronically created monster that is never wholly believable … at least, it wasn’t for this viewer. Numerous incidents arise in the film that are, you should pardon the expression, pretty hard to swallow. For instance, whereas the top speed for an actual anaconda is something on the order of 1 mph, the creature here moves at lightning speed, and is capable of grabbing a victim who is free-falling from a great height. (Granted, the suspense quotient to be had with a creature that could be easily outrun by even the most out-of-shape American would be an admittedly low one.) And as I mentioned up top, whereas a normal anaconda should be sluggish for a good couple of weeks after one solid meal, the one on display here is absolutely voracious, feeding on victim after victim after victim. Well, perhaps that is because the snake that we are given here, rather than being 28 feet long (the greatest length ever recorded for an anaconda), is much much longer.
The net result, thus, is a creature that feels like one of those in a 1950s sci-fi film; a radiation-mutated horror of some kind hidden out of sight in the jungle depths, a la the giant wasps in 1957’s Monster From Green Hell. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of conceit; I happen to love those ‘50s sci-fi creatures. Unfortunately, the monster here just feels patently phony, although not nearly as ersatz as the constrictor that 007 went up against in Moonraker. Compare it, for example, to the deadly boa in the 1933 pre-Code wonder Murders in the Zoo, which came off as hyperrealistic and thus twice as terrifying. But Anaconda has other problems besides these. Several of the characters do really stoopid things here (I’m thinking of Gary and Denise, who go off into the nighttime jungle for a little makeout session! I mean, really? I wouldn’t want to step off of that barge during the daytime!). Even worse, it was just impossible for me to determine whether or not our band of adventurers was fighting one indestructible snake monster or several. Terri seems to effectively kill the creature midway through the film by firing point blank several times into its gaping maw, so perhaps there were two of them? Or more? There really is no way to tell.
Fortunately, the news is not all bad here. Anaconda, despite the patent implausibility of its central adversary, is undeniably a lot of fun, and the film is nicely compact and moves along briskly. Peruvian director Luis Llosa shoots his picture with style and manages to ratchet up the suspense nicely, withholding our first establishing shot of the monster even though we see something endangering a poacher (future Machete star Danny Trejo) and easily dispatching a black panther early on. And Llosa gives us several imaginative shots that really are tours de force. In the first, we see our anaconda swim by underwater, the body and face of its latest victim (yes, Gary) protruding from its swollen belly. And in the second, even more flabbergasting shot – one for the books, really – we the viewers are inside the snake’s body, looking outward, as its latest victim is drawn inexorably inward! The film on the whole looks fantastic, with spectacular Amazonian scenery throughout: It was indeed shot in Manaus (which, beautiful enough as it is, is a locale that I hope to avoid at all costs!), as well as in the Arboretum of Los Angeles County, of all places. And it offers up several nicely turned performances. J-Lo, I am happy to report, is surprisingly effective here as the spunky Terri; she is wholly credible and convincing, as well as sexy and appealing. Best of all, though, is Jon Voight as the snaky snake hunter Serone. Love it or hate it (and many people have derided this performance over the years … a performance that was ultimately nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award, ultimately losing to Kevin Costner in The Postman, by the way), this bit of thesping will long linger in the viewer’s memory. Voight here is completely over the top as the demented anaconda hunter, and it should perhaps be no surprise that the old pro handily steals the film from his less seasoned performers. His Serone, of course, follows very much in the footsteps of Robert Shaw’s Quint character in the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, although Serone is far, far more deranged, dangerous and unpredictable. It is a delicious role for Voight, actually, and he runs with it gleefully.
Anaconda was produced on a budget of $45 million and returned almost $140 million at the box office; this monster film was thus a monster smash hit. And so it should perhaps be no surprise to learn that the film spawned a belated sequel seven years later, Anaconda: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, which features no characters from the original film (small wonder, as most of the original crew members from the first movie wind up in the snake’s distended belly by the time the final credits roll!). This second film apparently takes place in Borneo, even though anacondas exist nowhere else on Earth other than South America. Based on my experience with this first film, in what turned out to be a lengthy series (the third through fifth films being straight-to-video affairs), I am in no great rush to look at that first sequel, although I am curious to see how the filmmakers go about explaining the presence of anacondas in Southeast Asia. Snakes on a plane, perhaps?