In the midst of shooting a documentary on a long-lost Amazonian tribe, the Shirishamas, director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez) and her crew – cameraman Danny Rich (Ice Cube), anthropologist Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz) and documentary star Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde) – come across a stranded Paraguayan snake hunter by the name of Paul Serone (Jon Voight). When he tells them that he not only knows of the tribe they’re looking for, but knows where they’re at, the crew let him on board.
After Cale’s involved in an accident that shuts down production, Serone takes command of the boat and crew, forcing them to go along with his true agenda – hunting down and capturing a record-sized green anaconda, worth a million dollars, that he’s been tracking.
Anaconda is the sorta film I don’t make arguments for being a masterpiece. It’s a film that revels in its self-aware ridiculousness, knowing exactly the type of movie that it is and doing it well. I’ve read some reviews and various online comments stating their disdain for the film ’cause it gets so many things wrong about snakes. Look, I’m well aware that…
* Snakes don’t chase or actively hunt down humans. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
* Although anacondas, which average around 500 lbs. in size, are physically capable of killing humans by way of constriction, they are not able to swallow adult-sized humans (the width of our shoulders prevent it), and there really is no record of them swallowing children.
* Snakes do not shriek like Abu getting viciously raped to death (Frank Welker, who voiced Aladdin’s monkey sidekick, provided the voice for the anaconda).
Watching Anaconda for a fact-based study on snakes, though, is like watching Star Trek or Star Wars for a fact-based study on NASA. However, in fairness to this film, compared to its three horribly convoluted sequels (the second of which somehow placed the slithery title characters in Borneo), it’s practically Austin Stevens: Snakemaster.
Now, I bashed Mega Python vs. Gatoroid pretty bad yesterday, so how can I possibly defend this film? Well, this is the type of tongue-in-cheek film we get every now and then that is absolutely ridiculous and yet fun, entertaining and competently made at the same time. Films of its time like Independence Day, Tremors and The Mummy, as well as, more recently, Piranha 3D have also succeeded in delivering highly effective creature feature entertainment. It’d be foolish to say this or any of those aforementioned films are at the level of Spielberg’s Jaws (although director Luis Llosa borrows Spielberg’s “fear of what’s there but not seen” technique for a few scenes that work well), but they know their purpose and if it goes about it in an entertaining way, then most of the flaws can be forgiven.
Director Luis Llosa, who prior to this film helmed the effective action film Sniper and the not so effective The Specialist, has put together a simple yet stylish creature feature flick. To the film’s benefit, Llosa and his team of screenwriters, Hans Bauer, Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr. (not sure why it took three of them to write this, but whatever), wisely avoid throwing in any complicated twists and plot turns and deliver a stripped down, straight to the point story that gives the audience exactly what they are looking for here. Give them the snake killing people and everyone’s happy.
What distinguishes this from the other Syfy snake on a rampage films is that the production efforts here are quite good (the unnecessary snake shrieking is the film’s one technical blunder). The cinematography by Bill Butler (who, coincidentally, also shot Jaws) and the set design by Daniel L. May are both superbly done and give the film a vibe that blends gorgeous mystique and sheer terror that aptly fits the Amazon setting.
“This river can kill you in a thousand ways.”, Jon Voight’s river rat coldly tells one of the crew.
The make or break aspect of the film is obviously the snakes which are presented in a variety of forms from animatronic, CGI and live reptiles. Most of the time, particularly with the animatronic snakes, they look pretty convincing. At times, the CGI is noticeable but its never distracting and oddly enough, still an upgrade over the sequels, the first of which arrived nearly a decade after.
Obviously, this isn’t a performance showcase or anything. Unlike Jaws, which gave us three memorable, well-written characters, the roles here are nothing more than the standard types you expect from a film that sets ‘em up and then knocks ‘em all down like bowling pins, the bowling ball here being a 40 ft. long anaconda. That said, the performances service the film well, and no one really can be faulted for a bad performance here. Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube share a fairly solid rapport with each other, Jonathan Hyde plays it up as the smug, privileged film star and Owen Wilson gets a few moments for comic relief.
The one memorable character out of the bunch is really, to the film’s credit, the one that needs to be memorable and that’s Jon Voight’s villain. Voight is all smirks and sneers, hamming it up in a way that comes dangerously close to being too over-the-top, yet he’s the type of accomplished actor that knows where to draw the line between campy fun and too much overacting. Lesser talents could’ve turned this into a ham-fisted mess, but Voight makes it the film’s highlight, and without giving anything away, the “wink” is the icing on the cake.
Anaconda isn’t the timeless classic that Jaws is, but like any schlock movie done right, its ridiculously cheesy, knows it and is entertaining in being so, a feat that few of its kind are able to accomplish. Thanks to Luis Llosa’s solid direction, some first-rate production design and an enjoyably hammy turn from Jon Voight, you’re able to overlook the fact that its depiction of snakes is as accurate as Shag’s free throw percentage and just enjoy the ride.