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“Buenos noches, beautiful.” —Jon Voight, Anaconda

Cult movies generally imply some active engagement on the part of the viewer. These are films that are often unsuccessful or misunderstood, and thus need to be sought out and championed, passed around a network of like-minded friends or revived for the midnight/repertory circuit. This is how commercial catastrophes like Donnie Darko or Pootie Tang get a second life, and it affirms the cheering notion that great (or at least singular) movies will find an appreciative audience someday, even if it’s many years down the road. Such are the thoughts to which cinephiles cling when they confidently declare that the crippled little orphan they’ve adopted will one day be worshipped as a towering Adonis. 

Anaconda is not that kind of movie. It was modestly successful at the box office. It is utterly conventional and often merely perfunctory, even by the standards of second-rate Jaws rip-offs. It has inspired one theatrical and two direct-to-DVD sequels to date. It does not need to be sought out; it’s on cable television, probably right now or perhaps later on tonight. Nothing will keep the world’s most passive, glazed-over channel-flipper from getting the chance to see Anaconda. Yet it appears in New Cult Canon for two related reasons: It has the power to freeze even the twitchiest of thumbs, much as the film’s 40-foot-long jungle snake coils around its victims before devouring them whole. And the source of that power, beyond the mesmerizingly terrible CGI effects, is Jon Voight, whose performance as a Paraguayan snake hunter named Paul Sarone is bigger and more deadly than any predator known to man. 

When Anaconda arrived to me via DVD for this column, I was initially dismayed to find that it was a 1:33-to-1 copy, effectively ruining the fine 2:35-to-1 location photography by ace cinematographer Bill Butler (The Conversation), whose Miller Time twilight shots of the Amazon are the film’s one genuine aesthetic triumph. But then, I reconsidered: This was the way I (and many others) had always watched Anaconda, and the only thing truly disconcerting about it was the missing 30 minutes of commercials to pad out its 89-minute running time to the full 120. Jean-Luc Godard once famously opined that CinemaScope was only good for “filming snakes and funerals,” but in the case of this particular snake, less is almost certainly more. 

Anaconda begins with an unnecessary bit of salesmanship in the form of an opening crawl stating, “Anacondas are among the most ferocious—and enormous—creatures on earth, growing, in certain cases, as long as 40 feet.” (A stretch. Twenty feet is usually the max.) They’re also “not satisfied after eating a victim” and “will regurgitate their prey in order to kill and eat again.” (False.) The purpose seems to be convincing the audience that Anaconda will be scarier than Jaws, Alligator, and Piranha combined—and, indeed, can swallow all of their respective creatures alive and regurgitate them for a pleasure-kill—and setting the stage for one hell of a payoff down the line. Such is the film’s M.O.: It finds the crudest possible way to get information across and reserves its energy for the big showdowns between man and beast and man and Voight. 

The human snake-bait, heading downriver on a barge to shoot a documentary on the mysterious, elusive “people of the mist,” breaks down into something close to Gilligan’s Island’s fearless crew. There’s their egghead leader Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz), The Professor, an expert in indigenous tribes, and his Mary Ann, Terri (Jennifer Lopez), the intelligent-but-sexy director of the documentary. The Movie Star, also sexy but less substantive, is Denise (Kari Wuhrer), the assistant sound person, who’s around mostly as romantic companion to sound guy Gary (Owen Wilson). Trouble is, Gary is Gilligan and he’s ultimately more interested in The Skipper, here represented by Voight’s Sarone, who imagines himself a great leader of men, but is in fact a total buffoon. That leaves The Millionaire, taking the form of effete, golf-and-classical-music-loving British host Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde), and His Wife (who doesn’t exist). And Ice Cube as the L.A. native who’s there to shoot the documentary and blow more holes in my iron-clad Gilligan’s Island analogy. 

The simple premise has the crew rescuing the stranded Sarone from a powerful rainstorm and later relying on his expertise after a giant poisonous wasp—some might call it the anaconda of poisonous wasps—fells Dr. Cale. As the rest of the mostly urban crew scrambles to figure out how to get Cale to a hospital, Sarone takes control, urging them against travelling two days upriver and instead continuing to head downriver, where he can find them a doctor. It turns out, of course, that Sarone makes big money as a snake poacher and wants to recruit them, unwittingly, into a scheme to trap a 40-foot anaconda that could be worth $1 million. Gilligan is on board with that plan, of course, even after it almost certainly devours their local ship captain. Here, Sarone lays out the adversary they face. Literally: 

“Don’t make me out a monster. I didn’t eat the captain, Mateo.” It’s hard to discern the precise origins of Voight’s accent in Anaconda, but it’s not in the Southern Hemisphere, much less in the vicinity of Paraguay. At times, he sounds like Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster in Scarface, full of delicious, dialect-mangling bluster; elsewhere, he sounds vaguely like a native Italian struggling with English as a second language. No matter, though, because Voight’s Sarone is by far the most compelling element of Anaconda, a charismatic ham who dominates every scene as if he were Emil Jannings or Charles Laughton or Orson Welles. The rest of the cast can only quiver before him, even Ice Cube, who tries to carry over his hip-hop braggadocio so self-consciously that the first lines out of his mouth are “Today’s a good day.” 

Performances as large as Voight’s tend to be brushed off as “bad,” usually by the same people who wrongly turn up their nose at late-period Pacino performances, but his screen presence more than compensates for his obvious lack of authenticity. Though I haven’t seen the Anaconda sequels, I can imagine they’re as brutally dull as any scene here without Voight, who may be responsible for the film’s Razzie nominations and MST3K-style zinging, but plays his B-movie villain to the hilt. Nothing Voight does here is small: His man of action can spear a fish in one sharp jab, blow up obstacles with dynamite he happens to have on hand, and approach an anaconda hunt (with dead-monkey bait) as if he were a beer-swilling yellowfin tuna fisherman. His Sarone is sly, too, snuffing out what has to be the least convincing fake-seduction ever attempted. (Keep in mind, this scene happens after the ship’s captain and Gilligan have been eaten by the snake, after the snake has contemptuously spit the bait-monkey in The Millionaire’s face, and after The Skipper has commandeered the barge by force.) 

Less defensible—in fact, gloriously indefensible—is the snake itself, a CGI marvel in the early days of CGI, created just a year after Twister wowed audiences with fake-looking tornadoes. Unlike Jaws, which famously withheld and teased out its mechanical monster, Anaconda trots out its big special effect as readily as a Paz de la Huerta striptease. And with the grace of a snake that can do things that a real anaconda could never do in a million years, it coils up in too-perfect concentric circles, crushing human bones into cocaine powder and catching a waterfall-jumper like a can of corn. Whether the laughs that follow are intended or not—the .gif below suggests mostly the former—Anaconda keeps them coming. 

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Coming Up: 
December 1: Diggstown
December 22: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover
January 12: Dazed And Confused