ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 17, 1997
By Steve Newton
“When you can’t breathe, you can’t scream,” declares the promotional tag line of Anaconda, director Luis Llosa’s $45-million “adventure” film about a group of documentary filmmakers who run afoul of a giant snake in the Brazilian rain forest. Fortunately, when you can’t breathe, you can still roll your eyes and chortle at the comical undertones of this haywire horror flick, which borrows heavily from such lowbrow fare as the Friday the 13th slasher series.
Jennifer Lopez portrays the dedicated director who leads her film crew—including a cameraman played by Ice Cube and an anthropologist played by Eric Stoltz—up the Amazon River in search of the legendary Shirishama Indians. Just to show, early on, how much danger these folks are in, we get to see the film’s titular star squeeze a black panther so tight that one of its eyeballs pops out.
Now, anybody with a background in film studies knows that Jason did that exact same thing to one of his victims in Friday the 13th: Part III, with the added effect that—in the 3-D theatrical version, anyway—the eye came popping out right at ya. In Anaconda, the camera just lingers on the cat’s eye like it was a discarded marble, albeit one with gory ocular bits a-danglin’.
That cheap shock sets things up for another reminder of early-’80s body-count flicks, as the crew’s production manager and sound mixer—hot-to-trot babe and horny surfer type, respectively—sneak off the boat in the middle of the night for a little bungle in the jungle. Having hot sex in this kind of film makes the participants instant victims, of course, but instead of being stalked by a hockey-masked goon, the two are chased around in low-to-the-ground point of view by something we expect to be the snake but that turns out to be a vicious boar.
When a grizzled snake hunter (Jon Voight) shoots the beast and saves the would-be copulators, he gains the confidence of the gullible film crew, but his faraway eyes and upside-down smile make it obvious he’s got his own sinister agenda.
Voight’s portrayal of ponytailed poacher Paul Sarone in Anaconda is a twisted variation on his vengeance-obsessed prison escapee in Runaway Train. This time around, he plays up his scarred character’s quirks for laughs—a twisted grin here, a steely squint there—and whether or not you appreciate his one-man freak show will depend on what kind of mood you’re in. Things hit a goofy high/low when, after spending some quality slime-time in the belly of the beast, Sarone is regurgitated and makes his final act of defiance a comical, knowing wink.
Voight’s quietly maniacal performance would have stolen the show if not for the thrilling appearances by the snake itself. A reported $10 million was spent on the anaconda effects alone, which for the most part are quite stunning, although some of the computer-generated attack scenes have a slightly unreal look to them. I also found phony fault with how tough-guy rapper Ice Cube managed to get saved—headband intact—from the deadly clutches of the original fangsta.