Anaconda (1997) (part 1 of 5)
Man, take a gander at that cast! It’ll be a very long time before we get to see such a big group of high-priced stars lowering themselves to this level again, so cherish it while you can.
Back in the 1950’s, horror films about giant animals became a popular genre for the first time, and filmmakers went wild. Unfortunately, the majority of them used these type of films mainly as an excuse to slack off. I mean, who needs a good script or strong characters when you’ve got giant bugs crushing buildings? This is probably why the well finally ran dry, and such movies eventually fell out of favor. Today, we still occasionally get a giant animal flick, but alas, it seems that the conventions of the genre haven’t changed a bit in the last fifty years.
Which brings us to Anaconda. Make no mistake, it’s relatively well-made compared to most of its giant animal brethren, but in its most frustrating aspect, the film refuses to do anything new. The closest thing to a twist on the genre is that this giant animal is not a freak of nature or a science experiment gone wrong, but rather something that actually exists in the real world. Regrettably, this isn’t enough to save the movie from mediocrity, and as if that weren’t bad enough, Anaconda is rated PG-13, meaning we won’t even be getting any decent gore effects.
The first thing we see is two paragraphs of information about anacondas. I guess the filmmakers wanted to prove they did some research, and let us know we’ll be watching an “informed” horror film. Instead, they just shoot themselves in the foot here, as two of the statements—that anacondas can grow up to 40 feet, and that they regurgitate their prey to eat again—are patently false. Making things even worse is that the text scrolls towards the top of the screen and invites Star Wars comparisons, despite the fact that all the information could have fit onscreen at once.
Then the opening credits roll, and behind them we see shots of the Amazon River while peaceful pipe music plays. See, that’s to offset the violence that will soon occur. See? See? I’m not sure if this is intentional, but the shot behind Jon Voight’s credit looks very, very similar to the opening shot of Deliverance. That kind of reminder isn’t helping, guys.
There’s a shot of a houseboat on the river, and while we hear a man shouting in Portuguese, the camera tilts. Oh, auteur! There’s a quick shot of the guy inside. He’s banging on a radio and, hey! It’s Danny Trejo! Boy, it’s sad to see such a prolific actor reduced to being the “opening victim” in a movie like this. We cut back outside and the music turns sinister as the camera tilts in the other direction. It heads for the boat, moving past a big tree branch and uncomfortably reminding us of the opening shot of The Evil Dead. Stop reminding us of better movies, movie!
There’s a cut back inside the boat, where some animals in cages are freaking out. They’re always the first to know, aren’t they? The whole boat gives a little shake, prompting Danny Trejo to give up on the radio and grab a gun. The camera then zooms in on a newspaper clipping on the wall, which is basically the equivalent of flashing the words “Remember This Later” onscreen to the sound of a blaring siren. I have another thought about this shot, but I’ll save it for later.
Danny then hammers a two-by-four across the door. Um, what makes him think the anaconda is going to come in through the front door? Sure enough, the boat shakes again and some floorboards are knocked loose. Some nails shoot up out of the floor, and there’s even a gratuitous slow-motion shot of this. Another bump sends more floorboards and Danny himself flying upwards. He gets the message, so he rips the two-by-four off the door with his bare hands [!] and heads out, bumping into some cages with birds in them. I guess we’re meant to infer that he’s a poacher, so that we don’t actually feel any concern for him.
Danny climbs up the boat’s mast, taking some time to shoot behind him at absolutely nothing. Smart. At the very top of the mast, he has nowhere left to go. Then there’s a huge Jaws rip-off shot from the snake’s point of view. We travel up the mast and at the very top, the camera pans around to Danny’s face and the music builds to a big crescendo where he shoots himself in the head. I suppose the idea is that getting eaten by an anaconda is so horrific, people would rather just save themselves some agony and kill themselves. Unfortunately, this never happens again. As the still-unseen anaconda starts eating, there’s a final cut to a wide shot of the peaceful river, just for another reminder that the director saw Jaws.
At a hotel “deep in the Amazon” (at least, according to the captions), documentarian Terri Flores looks at pictures of a tribe on a laptop, and she’s wearing a skimpy nightdress. Hey, when you’ve got J-Lo, why make the audience wait? There’s a totally manufactured scare here, with a shot of the water outside and a quick piece of threatening music that plays for no reason. Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz) enters, and he and Terri exchange some of the most obvious expository dialog seen in any film since the ’50s. The gist is that they’re filming a documentary about a mysterious Amazonian tribe, and that they now know where to look for them. At the end of this conversation, Terri notes that Cale’s all muddy and asks why he’s such a mess, and Cale deadpans a dumb joke about barely escaping from some piranha. Well. Too bad we won’t get to see anything remotely that exciting anytime soon.
Next, there’s another ridiculous attempt at false tension as ominous music plays behind a dilapidated barge pulling into a dock. We then immediately cut to some time later, with Terri’s documentary crew boarding the barge. Yeah, that means the shot of it arriving was pretty much useless. Anyway, it’s time to meet the rest of our snake fodder. First up is Danny (Ice Cube), the token black guy. Terri asks why he’s up so early and his explanation is, approximately, “Not every day mah hooooome girl from ‘SC get to direc’ her own doc-uh-ment’ry!”
Meanwhile, Dr. Cale discusses their route with the captain of the barge, a guy named Mateo who incidentally looks creepy as hell, so I think we can hazard a pretty good guess at how he’ll end up. Mateo refuses to take the barge along the route Cale points out to him, and suggests a different route. Cale eventually yields, saying it’s alright if they go out of their way if they can be “better safe than sorry.” Yeah, like that’s not going to end up being ironic or anything.
Terri then gives herself a little unendearing moment by questioning Mateo’s ability to speak English (why did she hire him in the first place if she wasn’t sure?). She tells him to take the barge down the channel for some shots. Mateo ups his Creepiness Factor by sleazily looking her up and down and saying, “As you say, cheffe.”
Another member of the crew arrives in the form of Warren Westridge, the stiff-assed British guy who will narrate the documentary. He instantly establishes his credentials as the odious comic relief, as evidenced by his bringing some expensive wine on the trip and yelling at the porters who are lugging his stuff around. He goes on to say his flight was a “bloody nightmare” and orders Denise (Kari Wuhrer) to carry his bags onboard. He insists on this, even after learning that she’s the production manager. The final crew member to appear is Gary (Owen Wilson), who tells Denise that some people consider it a sign of respect to be asked to carry someone’s bags. In return, he rightfully gets a gesture stuck in his face that is, shall we say, not a sign of respect.
Westridge meets Terri, saying that he’s seen her earlier films. He gets a slightly pained look before politely calling them “very promising!” Then he immediately starts bitching about the heat. Man, I can’t wait until this guy gets eaten. Oops, hope I didn’t ruin the surprise.
Meanwhile, Cale picks up a compressed air canister and Danny says he looks like a “low budget-ass Jacques Cousteau”. You know, I really don’t see it. Cale further pounds the joke into the ground by delivering some gibberish French. Mateo then lets him know that everything’s ready, and before they shove off, Cale tells everyone to “pray you didn’t forget your bug spray.” That one isn’t going to be remembered in the annals of great “let’s go” lines anytime soon.
Some triumphant music plays as the barge heads down the Amazon River and the first part of the documentary is filmed. The crew shoots Westridge as he explains that they’re looking for a mysterious lost tribe called the Shirishama. Now, this part just increases my disgust with the earlier expository dialog. Why did they include it at all when this was the perfect opportunity to get all the background information out of the way?
Anyway, now that the characters and situation have all been set up, it’s time for a trip to Screenwriting 101 with some very weak character development. Thus, Gary makes a clumsy pass at Denise, who’s responds that she’s busy working. Meanwhile, the reason Kari Wuhrer was hired is made clear, because her exposed legs dominate the shot. When Gary comes onto her some more, Denise doesn’t walk away like a real woman might, but just responds semi-cattily. Any bets on these two making it to the end alive? Anyone? Bueller?
Suddenly, a storm blows in, and the crew eventually hears someone calling out for help. They come across Paul Sarone (Jon Voight, now the Agony Booth’s latest Repeat Offender), whose boat’s propeller is tangled up in some roots. He’s yelling and holding a white tarp over his head and waving a big cargo bag around. Despite all this, Danny still feels the need to point him out to the others.
Cale, apparently forgetting about Jon Voight’s previous trip down a river, decides to stop and pick him up. He calls out to Sarone, telling him that they’ll bring him onboard, but Sarone is already way ahead of him. He just throws his bag onto the barge, casts the tarp aside, and jumps on top of Gary. Of course, he does this all with a big-time psycho look on his face, which the others don’t seem to find suspicious at all. Everyone gathers around, and Cale tells Sarone that they’ll drop him off at the next village. Meanwhile, Mateo comes out and he and Sarone swap Significant Looks while some more ominous music plays. Over-foreshadow much?
Sometime later, the weather is completely calm again. Everyone watches Sarone out in the water spearing a big fish, which he announces is “Fish—river style!” Yeah, I think they got that much. Terri says they’ll have to film this next time, as it apparently didn’t occur to her until just now. Good director. As Sarone carves the fish up, we see that our heroes have waited until now to ask anything about him, including his name. We learn that Sarone is from Paraguay, and accordingly, Voight has put on a laughable “Latino” accent that seems patterned after Ricky Ricardo.
There’s some useless backstory about Sarone once being a priest, and it serves only to set up some enmity between him and Westridge, based entirely on Westridge snobbishly calling him a “failed priest”. Sarone says he now catches snakes, but when Terri suggests that he might be a poacher, he just says, “Poaching is illegal,” and quickly changes the subject. Ooh, nice save!
After learning about the film they’re making, Sarone says he’s seen the Shirishama and offers to take them there. Westridge’s big mouth gets him into more trouble as he scoffs at this and calls Sarone a “river rat”. Man, we’re quickly running low on likeable characters here. Denise is the only one to really bond with Sarone, so he decides to call her “little baby bird”, apropos of nothing.
That night, reggae music plays while Denise does the kind of slutty, drunken dancing one usually sees on episodes of Wild On. Meanwhile, Danny recalls a piece of stupidity from Red Zone Cuba by smoking a cigar in his hammock, and Terri and Cale busy themselves by looking at a huge swarm of fireflies. Cale spouts out some pseudo-scientific babble about the mating rituals of insects, and Terri says she likes how, for them, it’s all just instinct. Wow, sizzling sexual tension here. Cale suddenly says “I missed you,” and they kiss. Okay, hold the phone here. So Cale and Terri were actually a couple in the past? This means all that stuff he said earlier about hiring Terri because she was a good director suddenly gets called into question. Plus, before they seemed to talk like they had just met recently. Stupid superfluous romance subplot.
It seems the writers were worried that we might forget these people are supposed to run into an anaconda eventually, because right now they give us a good, clear look at it, in all its rubbery, animatronic glory. However, it doesn’t go after the barge quite yet. Instead, it satisfies itself by catching and crushing a black panther, leading to the “Thrill as two stuffed animals battle to the death” scene. At the end, we zoom in on the jungle floor and pointlessly see that one of the panther’s eyes has popped out [?].
The next day, the previous scene’s violence is offset with more of Westridge allegedly being funny. He has a net set up and is hitting golf balls into it, but is so distracted by the music on Danny’s boombox that two balls end up in the river. Oh, we’ve all been there, right? By the way, in what is either a lame in-joke, or a sign of a low soundtrack budget, the music on the radio is an Ice Cube song [!!]. Danny won’t let Westridge turn down the boombox, so in a very abrupt mood shift, they swap stories about how easily each one of them could kill the other. Danny shows off a little fold-up knife, prompting Westridge to ask, “You and whose army?” Danny, as the token jive-talking black guy is wont to do, shouts back, “Ya momma’s!”