Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Review: Anaconda

The idea of 'so bad it's funny' (or 'so bad it's good') is oft-mentioned by movie buffs, especially in the context of sci-fi and monster movies. Before discussing Anaconda (1997, trailer), I feel I should explain exactly what I mean when I say 'so bad it's good', because the phrase seems to mean different things to different people.

Some people find legendarily bad movies like The Room, Troll 2 and Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space hilarious. I don't really understand this, as I don't find cheapness and poor execution to be funny. I need a film to have some form of basic competence to be able to watch it.

Cheesy flicks like the 1966 Adam West Batman and the monster movies Arachnophobia, Lake Placid and Tremors don't count as 'so bad it's good' to me because they are intentionally tongue-in-cheek, and I think that they succeed in that capacity.

When I say 'so bad it's good', I'm talking about movies that are well-funded and well-constructed, but suffer glaring stupidities; like using too serious a tone for a silly idea, or making dumb casting choices. A good example of the latter is Outbreak, the blockbuster that inexplicably cast a 58-year-old Dustin Hoffman as its action hero. 

I guess some people like to laugh at bad creature effects, but Anaconda has a really well-made animatronic snake.

Compare with this picture of a real anaconda

I don't think a movie with bad creature effects is anywhere near as funny as a movie titled 'Anaconda', with a perfect anaconda effect, that still finds ways to be moronic. Jaws wasn't even lucky enough to have a decent mechanical shark.

I feel like ridiculing an Ed Wood movie is kind of mean; like laughing at an ill-equipped, untrained football team. Of course it's going to lose.

I can laugh at films like Anaconda because they have no reason to lose. Anaconda is like an extremely well-trained team with great equipment and players (director Luis Llosa, composer Randy Edelman, cinematographer Bill Butler, editor Michael R. Miller), but when the game starts it inexplicably blunders around the field and scores an own-goal.

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Anaconda starts with a classic cold-open. After a threatening title crawl - 'Anacondas are among the most ferocious creatures on Earth...They regurgitate their prey in order to kill and eat again...' - we see a first-person view of the snake advancing on a sweat-stained man as he pleads and panics into his boat's radio. As the music reaches maximum anxiety, the doomed man shoots himself.

Cut to a completely separate group of people who, being clueless Americans, are clearly the true focus of the movie. They are a documentary crew set to head off down the Amazon river in search for an elusive tribe.

On their way the crew rescue the menacing Paul Sarone, who gradually engineers for the team to help him capture a big anaconda for a million-dollar cash prize.

My Take

Now, one of the problems with choosing a man-eating snake for your creature-feature is that its prey can just go inside and shut the door. It's not like the monster is a werewolf, an axe-wielding maniac, or a zombie that can pound down the door.

The way Anaconda gets around this problem in the opening is to have the snake pound its way in anyway - through the floor. Furthermore, it bangs so hard that nails fly out of the floorboards and six feet into the air.

No self-respecting schlocky flick doesn't cast Danny Trejo.

The documentary crew is played by actors seemingly picked out of a hat: Jennifer Lopez as the tight-panted director, Eric Stoltz as the khaki-clad scientist, Ice Cube as the stereotypical hip hop-loving black guy cameraman, Jonathan Hyde as the stereotypically snooty English presenter, and Owen Wilson as well.

The dialogue in Anaconda is completely shonky and on-the-nose. To establish that Terri (Lopez) and Steven (Stoltz) are looking forward to working together, Steven tells her: 'We're gonna make a great team'.

To establish that Gary (Wilson) is attracted to Denise (Kari Wuhrer) he feeds her this terrible line: 'Is it me, or does the jungle make you really, really horny?'

The crown jewel of Anaconda's players is Jon Voight, whose prize-ham portrayal of snake-catcher Sarone belies his distinguished, Oscar-awarded acting career. Sarone is physically imposing, wild-eyed and secretive:

'Snakes. I catch them. For zoos and collectors.'

'Poaching?'

(Sarone pauses, looks away, then responds:) 'Poaching is illegal.'

In case you weren't suspicious enough of his incredibly sketchy behavior, his default facial expression is one of the great cinematic sneers.

Sketchy guy? I don't see any sketchy guy. What, behind me?

Sarone completely steals the show from the dull-faced Jennifer Lopez with his outrageously campy behavior and his many asshole-ish, Hispanic-drawled lines. For example, halfway through the movie the boat's captain Mateo mysteriously disappears.

Sarone is convinced that the anaconda has killed him, but everyone else insists on keeping the boat anchored until Mateo returns. When Jennifer Lopez wakes up the morning after, Sarone simply taunts: 'Still, no Mateo...'

The Sarone character seems almost as if Jon Voight wasn't aware he was being filmed, and was on some kind of Amazonian actors' retreat where he went all-out in a Method exercise.

While the dialogue is bad and the acting inconsistent, Anaconda exercises enough adventure/horror tropes - such as a cold open, red herrings and a snake scene at regular intervals - that it's always entertaining. 

I have a special affection for Anaconda because it was one of the ten non-Disney VHS tapes I had growing up. Sometimes when I'm entertained by the snake sequences, I wonder whether I even really think it's bad after all...

...but then a character says something really silly ('How did we go from taking Cale to a hospital to catchin' a God-damn snake?!'), or there is a shot (1:06:52) that I can blatantly tell is reversed because water is going up a waterfall.

When it comes to badness, Anaconda is never bad.

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Anaconda was succeeded by three sequels of steadily-declining budget: Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Anaconda: Offspring and Anacondas: Trail of Blood. Not even practical creature effects can save these movies, because they nixed animatronics in favor of uproarious CGI.

When it comes to badness, Anaconda: Offspring truly can't be beat.

Further Reading

The late Roger Ebert explained a similar feeling to my kind of 'so bad it's good' appreciation in his review of The Mummy:

'...There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored, and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased. There is a little immaturity stuck away in the crannies of even the most judicious of us, and we should treasure it...'



Screengrabs: Anaconda was produced by Cinema Line Film Corporation, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Iguana Producciones, Middle Fork Productions, Skylight Cinema Foto Art and St. Tropez Films. The UK DVD was distributed by  Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Anaconda 3: Offspring was produced by Castel Film Romania and Hollywood Media Bridge. The UK DVD was distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2 comments:

  1. Some years ago I was writing an article about hydraulics---aka fluid power--which uses pistons and cylinders and hydraulic fluid to exert force and perform useful tasks. Automobile brakes are a common hydraulic system, and bulldozers and other heavy machinery employ hydraulics to get jobs done.
    When I was looking for interesting examples, one of the hydraulics makers alerted me to the giant hydraulically actuated robo-snake just being completed for the makers of Anaconda. It was about 20 feet long and had scads of electro-mechanical "vertebra" propelled by hydraulics to make the fake snake bend and move convincingly for the cameras.
    I visited the builder's special-effects company in California for a demo and they scared the crap out of me by inviting me into a darkened lab. Little did I know that the huge red-eyed serpent was about to lunge out from behind a half-closed door, its nasty tongue flicking in and out via some sort of roller mechanism. Every vertebra inside had a Pentium microprocessor dedicated to controlling and coordinating its motion with the rest of the long spine's joints. But I never did get around to seeing the movie.... Stu

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