Lost in the Movies: Anaconda


Anaconda has long been one of my guiltiest pleasures, but I hadn't seen it in years. On re-viewing, it isn't quite as much fun as I remembered but its greatest virtues still shine: among them a gigantic Amazonian serpent, writhing in flames yet still pursuing J.Lo and Ice Cube until it's been dispatched several times - but most of all, Jon Voight, who chews more scenery than the snake. I saw the movie when I was fourteen, in theaters with my dad, who reveled in Voight's hamminess and later proclaimed Voight's death scene, in which he's vomited up by the anaconda and manages to wink at Lopez, "one of the great moments in cinema."

Actually, Voight himself appears to agree. I was lucky to see him in a Q&A several years ago and after a long, deferential introduction focusing on the great actor's work in Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, Voight launched into an impassioned, totally unprompted 20-minute defense of Paul Sarone, the Paraguayan ex-priest snake hunter he plays in Anaconda, as his favorite, and maybe the best, role of his career. He confessed to creating much of the character's background himself and claimed that the wink was an improvisation. Certainly Voight has had his fair share of bizarre characterizations in recent years but Sarone is the work of a good actor hamming it up, rather than simply a ham.

Voight plays the camera like the seasoned pro he is, milking every line delivery and matching every grimace with a twinkle in his eye. Yet he never quite breaks character, even while strangling a woman with his legs and straining his eternal frown to its breaking point. Then again, he almost breaks character with that wink, his one admission that he's having a ball, which lets us have one too. Next to Voight, the most sympathetic character is the massive snake who pops up in the end; we have to admire her ("her"? Ice Cube calls her "bitch," so I'll have to take his word on it) persistence and as she hysterically tries to get a piece of J.Lo, she exudes the pathos of a scorned lover.

The rest of the movie gets bonus points for unabashedly being itself: this is a B-movie with very few pretenses. Despite the relatively early use of CGI (just 4 years after Jurassic Park, the effects still had some novelty) and the presence of some waxing (Lopez, Owen Wilson) and waning (Voight, Cube, Eric Stoltz) stars, it's an adventure story which doesn't bother to dress itself up in preening irony or arch cleverness. That in itself is a virtue; add it to Voight's gloriously over-the-top gusto and the snake's screen presence and Anaconda feels like the kind of movie those potheads in Pineapple Express would make. I mean that as a compliment.

Other than Voight, the cast is suitable, no more, no less. The characters seem to echo those in Alien: Lopez as Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube as Yaphett Koto, Kari Wuhrer as Veronica Cartwright, with Owen Wilson and Vincent Castellanos as various aspects of Harry Dean Stanton. Eric Stoltz, decommissioned early, could be John Hurt or Tom Skerritt...like the latter, he is the ostensible hero only to be cast aside and replaced by his love interest, the strong female lead. Initially Jonathan Hyde, as the requisite prickly Englishman, would seem to be Ian Holm's Ash, but eventually Voight assumes that role as he hijacks the mission for his own sinister purposes. Despite their similarly slimy intelligence, Voight differs from Holm because he's not a robot hiding amongst humans: indeed, he's the most alive of all these rather thin characterizations.

Anyway, I suspect the correspondence of the characters to those in the 1979 sci-fi classic is not intentional; rather, it's a reflection of the two films' common roots in adventure fiction. Then again, it's probable that the apparently distaff monster who pops up in the end is an homage to Alien's sequel. Having already killed the snake that was terrorizing them, Lopez, Cube, and Voight are confronted with the mother of them all, the Queen Alien of the serpents. Although here we don't get a re-enactment of the Ripley-Queen catfight; Lopez mostly serves as bait while Ice Cube slays the snake. That said, the movie deserves credit for not killing off the black guy in the first few minutes, let alone the entire picture. If it's not a highpoint for feminism, it does give the brother his due (kind of like the Democratic primaries, come to think of it. Don't let Gloria Steinem see this movie.)

Anyway, back to Jon Voight. After he finished taking questions, I was able to procure an autograph from him, asking him to sign it for my dad. The autograph reads, in part, "Let it be known that we who love Anaconda are a special breed." And he didn't even wink as he wrote it.

[For more on the timeless wink, visit Erich Kuersten at Bright Lights After Dark. Voight must be working some kind of mindmeld from afar on the blogosphere: I hadn't even seen Kuersten's piece before choosing to write about Anaconda.]


James Hansen said...

Nice post! I've been pondering a series where we look back at films either like this or highly acclaimed films that have gained/lost value. Or, in the case if this, remained about the same and have been a bit unfairly dissed. Glad to see some love for ANACONDA. I remember seeing this in theaters as well, but can't say I remember a thing about it other than someone committing suicide while the Anaconda killed his crew mates.

Any chance you saw BOA VS. PYTHON? Now I want to go watch some snake movies...

Dean Treadway said...

MovieMan, I have a new meme I'd like to challenge you to match at http://filmicability.blogspot.com.

It's the lead story now, on October 11, 2008, so check it out.

I take guilty pleasure in Anaconda, and especially in Jon Voight's go-for-broke performance. Seriously, the best giant snake movie ever. But SSSSSSS and Slither, while not giant snake movies, are pretty great reptilian pleasures too!

Joel Bocko said...

Dean, that is a great meme and one I'd like to tackle before I jump into political season full-throttle (on Tuesday, I'm going to start focusing exclusively on politically-themed films, both doc and narrative for a few weeks).

In fact, you may have even saved me from a tricky situation tonight, as I was going to tackle Griffith's Orphans of the Storm, which I'm not sure I can do justice to and still get up when I'm supposed to tomorrow.

True, it will take awhile to amass the list and make sure I haven't left anything off of it, but it will require less brain cells than analyzing the slippage of Griffith's formal complexity in a tale of the French Revolution (expect that one tomorrow if not tonight). Thanks.

Joel Bocko said...

James, glad you liked it. I haven't seen many other snake films, nor Lake Placid & that shark one that came out around the same time, which always struck me as similar films to Anaconda, though more outright-cheesy (whereas this is actually pretty solid on its own terms).

Anyway, I will be interested and probably simultaneously appalled to see Voight in the supposedly-awful American Carol. I think he plays George Washington giving the Michael Moore character a sanctimonious tour of Ground Zero. Voight seems to have gone off the deep end a bit, politically, what with his hysterical editorial this past summer (then again, it's a hysteria which seems to be spreading, given the bloodthirsty crowds at McCain rallies). Where's the anaconda when you need it (I kid Jon).

Daniel said...

Really fantastic look back at this movie that should be appreciated for all the reasons you mention, chief among them its lack of pretension. A different director might have tried to make this an actually scary horror movie, but instead it exists as one of the last great B movies.

I never knew that Voight took such pleasure in his character, but it's a lot of fun to watch so I shouldn't be surprised.

I didn't see the sequel to this for fear that it would somehow try to right wrongs that didn't exist in the first. Also, this movie's success is primarily because of the cast, as you mention, and without that the sequel is probably best left for late-night cable.

Joel Bocko said...

"One of the last great B movies"

Interesting statement. I haven't followed up on enough under-the-radar movies of the past few years to know if this is true, but it certainly seems to be. I wonder why. Is it the over-prominance of CGI now? (Today all of Anaconda would be digitally tweaked, and its style would probably be slicker.) I'd say it's the fact that B movies get the life sucked out of them by A budgets and smug publicity campaigns, but that was already going on in the 90s too.

Yes, I never saw the sequel either. For a revealing comparison of 90s and 00s ethos, look at the un-ironic (except in Voight's playful performance, which seems like an unintended surprise and is all the better for being surrounded by sincerity and straightforwardness) Anaconda vs. the aren't-we-so-ironic Snakes on a Plane, whose winking knowledge of its own campiness led to a marketing campaign so smug the damn movie's popularity peaked before anyone had even seen it (I still haven't, by the way).

Daniel said...

Wow, yes of course, Snakes on a Plane is exactly what Anaconda would be in 2009 - terrible (I did see it, in a theater no less). But yet they both exist as B movies and both have their fans. Like you I've become significantly more selective with what I watch since 1997, but there have been few B movies since then that make me wonder if I'm missing anything. Of course when they're bad, like Snakes on a Plane, then it just cements my admiration for Anaconda.

Joel Bocko said...

Daniel, as long as you weren't wearing one of those Snakes on a Plane hats...

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