No Great Snakes

Anaconda gives new meaning to the phrase disaster movie

One of the biggest discussion topics among cinephiles these days--courtesy the recent Oscar season--is whether Hollywood is petering out because it can't produce the kind of probing, intelligent films the independents are cranking out these days. The tragedy is, supposedly, that special-effects extravaganzas are all the studios know how to do any more. Anaconda, the latest such exercise in costly cheap thrills, proves that's not the problem at all.

The pressing concern seems to be: Can Hollywood do even trash well any more? How the hell do you screw up something as rudimentary as a killer-snake flick? In other words, let's not worry that Hollywood can't make Secrets and Lies until we figure out how junk food like Anaconda wriggled from its grasp. After we spend weeks on Oscar buildup and release, catching up on photographed literature such as The English Patient or feel-good, good-for-you human interest stories (Shine) and underdog American art (Sling Blade), movies like Anaconda are supposed to be our reward. They throw us right back into the commercial tidewaters, and we're supposed to whoop and holler as we rush along with the current, knowing full well that ahead lies...summer! Event movies! Dinosaurs! Sequels! Superheroes! Explosions! James Cameron!

Anaconda at the least should have been an exotic reptilian appetizer, something slithery and suspenseful and finally heart-pounding and cathartically disgusting. A quick look at the history of snake scarers, a modest bunch that includes the passable SSSSSSS and the impossible Venom, reveals that it shouldn't have been too difficult to make some knockoff Alien-Jaws hybrid with enough tongue-in-cheek humor, white-knuckle moments, and gross-out visuals to send zoo attendance figures skyrocketing across the country. Sadly, though, the incomprehensibly idiotic and entertainment-free Anaconda doesn't include anything remotely as icky-scary as the tomb of snakes scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Anaconda's ads say, "When you can't breathe, you can't scream." True, but you can snore.

The setup follows a documentary crew--anthropologist Steven (Eric Stoltz), director Terri (Jennifer Lopez), cameraman Danny (Ice Cube), soundman Gary (Owen Wilson), production manager Denise (Kari Wuhrer), and narrator Warren (Jonathan Hyde)--as they ferry a barge along the treacherous Amazon River in search of a legendary tribe called the Shirishama Indians. If that seems an inordinately large number of people for a documentary crew, especially for so dangerous and potentially fruitless a jaunt as theirs, remember that a body count is needed for films like this. Still--they bring the narrator with them?

As this conveniently multicolored band of victims wend their way through the Brazilian rain forest, they come upon a stranded boat, whereupon they are joined by blustery Paraguayan loner-mercenary Paul Sarone. Paul is looking to capture alive a reported 40-foot anaconda--"the perfect killing machine," he calls the wraparound menace--and figures he can enlist his new travel companions in his quest. He leads them into Heart of Darkness territory, of course, where the scaly threat starts picking off the cast one by one--encircling its victim, squeezing, swallowing whole, then regurgitating so it can nosh at its convenience. I think this happens to screenwriters a lot in Hollywood.

Paul, crazy enough for any docu crew to want to follow instead of some silly old tribe, is of course the human part of the movie's evil equation, and he's played by a real Academy Award winner, Jon Voight. I'm starting to believe, however, that human cloning has already been at work in Hollywood, because the Jon Voight who starred in Coming Home and Midnight Cowboy and the Jon Voight who serves slice after slice of fully cooked ham in Anaconda are so far from each other as to lend an air of science fiction to the proceedings. Paul is meant to be a Robert-Shaw-in-Jaws figure: the mysterious, accented, colorfully threatening expert on the film's nonhuman predator. He's part savior, part demon, all man.

But Voight, whose speechifying on the horrors of the anaconda ("It holds you tighter than your true love" being my favorite) is usually accompanied by constipated sneers, is so bad--imagine Desi Arnaz as Shaw's Quint--he becomes the only thing worth watching. Still, Paraguay should rise in protest.

The rest of the cast members look like they not only don't know where the snake is, they don't know where their parts went. Lopez has the unfortunately scripted line, "This was supposed to be my big break, now it's my big disaster," for which she should be grateful for Selena. Stoltz's character magically disappears from the movie while recuperating from a wasp sting, for which the audience should be grateful. And Ice Cube's typically unmatched sneer is left looking merely perturbed in the wake of Voight's facial freak show. As for Dallas native Wilson, his horny, lost surfer demeanor is a far cry from the philosophical bemusement of Bottle Rocket--the would-be Dennis Hopper turned bit part had more personality getting beaten up by Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy than becoming boa fodder here.

As for the real star--the snake, after all--the computer graphics work is so hopelessly cheesy, it's as if the cast were grappling with a 'toon; they should have called it Snake Jam. Director Luis Llosa so haphazardly orients things, you can barely figure out what's going on half the time; this isn't suspense, it's confusion. It certainly seemed a waste of time shooting on location on the Amazon, because the whole enterprise looks like it's happening two lagoons over from the Gilligan's Island set.

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