Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Anaconda’

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Anaconda has it all, treachery, betrayal, Jennifer Lopez, and snakes; lots of snakes. Statues of snakes, little snakes, myths about snakes. You name it they found a way to put a snake either in it, around it, or adjacent to it.  

Luis Llosa’s penultimate movie is a rare breed of the low budget creature feature. It’s actually quite good, better than you would think it would be. But it’s also just as cheesy and silly as you would assume a movie about a giant Anaconda snake hunting a raft of anthropologist documentarians and a rogue poacher would be.  

Embarrassingly I had never seen the film before. Even though the film came out in 1997, a period of my life in which I was most definitely consuming movies like Llosa’s Anaconda. I somehow never got around to seeing it. Yet, I’ve seen both Python and Boa vs. Python; which while obviously derivative are nowhere near as good as the movie which inspired them. 

Suffice to say I had an utter ball with Anaconda. A movie smart enough to start the movie by having the eponymous snake devour late 90s Danny Trejo. I mean, if Trejo can’t stop the snake, then what chance does anyone else have. 

Despite having a script cobbled together by a trio of writers, Hans Bauer, Jim Cash, and Jack Epps Jr., the movie never feels disjointed. It is after by design a cheeseball monster movie, so well-crafted narrative and tight plotting are not what we are asking for or even expecting. Still, Anaconda does a remarkable job introducing its bevy of characters while also setting them up with just a few key lines. 

The economy of which Llosa and his writers tell us everything we need to know about our characters. It’s impressive to the point of a tutorial in screenwriting. Especially when we consider the size of the cast and the lack of recognizable tropes we normally see in these types of movies.  

Not to mention Anaconda is the beginning of Jennifer Lopez’s white-hot explosion into stardom. After all, it was only a few months earlier in which Lopez starred in Selena rocketing her into the spotlight. It was early enough where starring in a movie about a giant snake who eats people on the Amazon was a move that could neither hurt nor help. Lopez has always been a talented actress, though, and her Terr, the director of the documentary, is smart, resourceful, and suspicious. 

Even before she was technically a movie star Lopez was a movie star anchoring a movie filled with a cast of soon to be stars, legends, and well-known faces. Ice Cube as Danny, her trusty camera operator who looks out for her and knows a good shot when he sees one. The two confide in each other as the members of the boat party begin to dwindle, planning, and debating the actions of other characters. 

A Latina woman and a Black man as the stars of a monster movie and who both, spoilers, make it out alive and often are the smartest ones on the boat, is rarity, not just for the 90s, but for today as well. Even more noteworthy is how Danny and Terri are friends and not lovers or potential lovers. Though Anaconda does try to hint at some romantic or deeper feelings between Terri and Dr. Cale played by Eric Stoltz. 

Stoltz is a character actor familiar to some, recognized by movie buffs, and known on sight by all. But Llosa doesn’t try and push the romance, thankfully, if only because Stoltz, a talented actor, doesn’t have the charisma of Lopez. The two have tepid chemistry well documented in cinema where the basic white male finds himself the center of a woman’s infatuation despite having no real discernable attributes. Not to mention, no matter how famous Lopez is at any point in her career, she is still Jennifer Lopez. Seeing her and Stoltz stare into each other eyes is about as outclassed and mismatched as a male lead has been in quite some time. 

Thankfully those scenes are few and in between. The horny on main scenes are relegated to the sound guy Gary (Owen Wilson) and the production manager Denise (Kari Wuhrer). Wilson has such lines as “Is it just me or does the jungle make you really, really, horny.” Rarely has a line broadcasted a character will be the first to die so loudly and clearly. 

Jonathan Hyde plays the aptly named Warren Westridge, the narrator and talking head for the documentary. He plays the sort of pompous dandy who brings champagne onto a dingy Amazon riverboat. Much like everyone else, the moment we see him, we understand immediately who he is to the plot and what type of character he will be. 

Llosa is aided by famed cinematographer Bill Butler. Together the duo makes great use of the boat as a setting and of the Amazon river as a sort of foreboding omen. Butler makes the oppressive heat of the rainforest, and the torrential downpour, palpable and effective. Bush weed seeds are now available on the website. That hie always makes sure every actor looks their best despite being soaked with perspiration and dank river water is a testament to his skill and the type of movie Llosa is making. 

On its own Anaconda would be just a solid monster movie. Butler’s framing, the knowing cast of characters, Llosa’s tightrope directing, and the script’s streamlined narrative all help to make an exceptionally fun snake-ploitation movie. After all, a documentary crew on a dilapidated boat traveling down the Amazon in search of a tribe of natives, the ShirishamasThe people of the mist, never before recorded or documented; would be enough for any film. 

But what makes Anaconda great is the absolute scene-chewing, grumbling, wild-eyed performance of Jon Voight’s Serone. Voight comes within the razor’s edge of being too hammy but it’s his dance with the edge of over the top that makes his Serone so eminently watchable. It helps that his Serone, a Paraguayan poacher, is one of the all-time great and utter sleazebags of the decade. 

That Serone is Paraguayan and Voight is so hilariously not is problematic. At the same time, we’re spared a tired racial stereotype, and the fact that Voight’s character is so slimy, creepy, and half-mad with blood lust, is fitting that he’s played by a white man. Lest we forget the two actual PoC in the cast are the heroes and can smell something’s wrong with Serone the moment they lay eyes on him. It’s almost as if Llosa, himself Peruvian, is getting revenge on the decades-long stereotype of the evil seedy Latino using a white actor in the role. 

Voight menaces and leers his way through the movie like a wrecking ball. He’s so obviously treacherous it’s hilarious that Wilson’s Gary even considers joining his side, much less actually does so. But herein lies another great thing about Anaconda; it’s creepy as all hell. 

Llosa and Butler have a shot of the man-eating snake swimming in the murky waters of the Amazon. Wilson’s recently devoured corpse clearly visible through its scaly skin, mouth still open in horror, his skull perfectly outlined. Anaconda is a b-budget horror movie but unlike most, it knows how to push our buttons. 

It plays with us and our expectations. Llosa builds genuine tension and scares both with the camera and the special effects. The effects it should be mentioned hold up remarkably well considering it’s been over twenty years. Some computer-generated moments have aged poorly, but even those are on par with something you’d see in a made for SyFy movie. 

This is partially because Llosa doesn’t show us the snake all the time. In one instance we see the snake attack a panther, but Butler and Llosa only show us glimpses. They, instead, show us the panther’s dismembered eyeball laying on the jungle floor as its body is dragged off into the dark unknown. 

Butler and Llosa also manage, either intentionally or unintentionally, strip the film of a leering male gaze. Noteworthy if for no other reason there are only two women in Anaconda and both have historically been cast for either “exotic sexuality” or “sexuality” in general. Lopez has been able to find ways to usurp the male gaze and make it her own, owning her sexuality and displaying it on her terms.  

Wuhrer is in everything from Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, to Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard, or the pulpy titled G-Men From Hell. She is the definition of a working actress. Yet, here she is written and shot as everyone else, with only a few scenes lingering on her frame.

She and Lopez, are never particularly objectified. For a film that has several scenes in which the actresses are seen floundering in the water or dripping wet, Llosa and Butler never ogle them in any real sense. If you are wondering why that’s so noteworthy, I would encourage you to watch the films you are watching a little closer. 

Watching Anaconda, I found myself angry that it had taken me this long to get around to seeing it. It has just the right amount of tension and tongue in cheek silliness to make the current never-ending quarantine bearable. Few things make me happier than watching a well-made film. Except, maybe a well-made B-movie monster movie. Luckily for me, and you, there’s Anaconda. 

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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