Twenty years after its release, Anaconda (1997) remains both a terrible and amazing B-movie. A documentary film crew sail down the Amazon River in search of a lost tribe and are stalked by a 40-foot animatronic snake (we are, of course, supposed to believe it is real). This sounds like an unearthed cult classic, but director Luis Llosa had a decent $45 million budget. It ranked number one at the domestic box office. And it made more than $136 million worldwide. Not bad considering it was almost universally panned by critics, with a rating of 38 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and six Razzie nominations.
There were predictable howls about this being yet another Spielberg rip-off. (If this is what you are looking for, watch the amazing Joe Dante/Roger Corman 1978 film Piranha). But Anaconda is less Jaws, and more Jaws 3. The creature feature has a nonsensical plot, over-the-top acting and special effects that haven’t held up. But if you stop wondering if you’re supposed to be laughing, it really is an enjoyable, ridiculous adventure.
In 1997, disaster films dominated the US box office. The top three earners were Titanic, Men in Black, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Similar releases included Dante’s Peak, Volcano, and Event Horizon. Action films were also hugely successful—the top ten included Air Force One, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The Fifth Element. It is not a total surprise that Anaconda ranks 23rd, but it is still pretty impressive for a film about a killer snake.
The fun of Anaconda is all in the casting. I’m assuming that the eclectic group of recognizable actors was what encouraged viewers: Oscar-winner Jon Voight lent some prestige, Eric Stoltz was familiar from his many film and television roles, and in the previous two months Jennifer Lopez had played Jack Nicholson’s mistress in Blood and Wine and the title role in the biopic Selena. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see Ice Cube fight a snake?
The eight characters are a collection of types that are standard and so completely predictable, that no character development is needed (or offered). They are so straightforward that you really have no stake in their survival, but not caring means that it is much easier to watch their number dwindle. Lopez is the tough, sexy director (who surprisingly never takes her clothes off, which left much of the audience disappointed—T&A is absolutely expected in this type of movie). The anthropologist (Stoltz) is her lover and the film’s financier (snooze). Ice Cube is the down-to-earth cameraman who gets shit done. I am 100 percent here for the ridiculously snooty English host Westridge (Jonathan Hyde) who brings champagne, uses the deck like a golf range, and says things like “I'm not your bloody poodle!” It is obvious that devious skipper Mateo (Vincent Castellanos), hippy sound-guy Gary (Owen Wilson), and fun producer Denise (Kari Wuhrer) are going to go first.
What is a surprise is Voight. His take on Serone, a villainous ex-priest turned snake hunter, is something else. He is a warped throwback to an old-timey villain, the type that ties damsels to train tracks. He is excessively creepy and so transparently untrustworthy that it would not have been surprising had he turned to camera and gone “Muahahaha!” But his agonizing attempt at an accent, unnatural pacing, and exaggerated sneering is absolutely torturous—seriously, he makes falling prey to that snake seems desirable.
Serone scams his way onto the boat and proceeds to use everyone as bait in his quest to capture the anaconda. (You know: Man is the real monster, etc.) We’re supposed to believe it’s for the money, but really Serone is seemingly in love with this snake. “Buenos noches, beautiful,” he marvels when it appears. Try not to laugh when he described how “They strike, wrap around you, hold you tighter than your true love, and you get the privilege of hearing your bones break before the power of embrace causes your veins to explode.”
The plot is wonderfully ridiculous, surrendering any pretence at accuracy. This snake is so very dangerous because it defies the rules of nature (and gravity). Anacondas do not grow that long. They do not hatch from eggs. And they definitely do not scream. If this amped-up snake isn’t scary enough, there’s also a reference to that urban myth about Candiru, the tiny fish that are said to swim up the urethra and lodge themselves with their painful spines.
What makes Anaconda even odder is that it is unusually sanitized for a monster movie and rated PG-13. It uses plenty of horror tropes like dangerous strangers, violating a restricted area, and showing the killer’s point of view. It takes this last one to a whole new level when we are place inside the snake itself, witnessing a body move towards us as it is being swallowed. However, there is little gore and a complete lack of sex and gratuitous nudity—the characters even get in the water fully clothed, which, frankly, seems impractical. Gary does flirt with Denise (“Is it just me or does the jungle make you really, really horny?”) and they do sneak off into the jungle... but are interrupted by an angry boar (which is killed by Serone who just happens to be right there). There is also the serious romance between Lopez and Stoltz, which is so dull that we forget about it once he is incapacitated by a wasp in the throat and an amateur tracheotomy (Serone again, of course).
The best thing about Anaconda is definitely the ending. Serone’s corpse winks at Lopez, who is of course our Final Girl. But Ice Cube survives against-type and saves the day. Then they literally sail off into the goddamn sunset. Leaving us wondering not just how did this get made, but how did it get released?
Anaconda is unintentionally so bad it’s good, kind of like the never-ending Transformers series—just because it is decisively bad has not stopped people from liking it. To enjoy Anaconda, you just have to submit to the silliness.
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