Monsters, particularly reptilian or otherwise non-mammalian monsters, have always held a fascination for the cinema-going public, especially if they eat people. Someone dubbed this "Jaws in the Jungle", and indeed it does contain many of the same ingredients, albeit in the depths of South America rather than on the open sea.
A production team gather together on a boat with the intention of searching out and filming a lost Amazonian tribe. They set out down the river, where they come across a man apparently stranded on a boat in need of rescue. They take him on board, only to gradually discover that he is actually intent on capturing another legend, namely a giant anaconda of up to 40ft in size. He is also willing to go to any means to do it.
Although it got a bit of a critical slating on its release, Anaconda is actually a pretty good monster movie, as long as you realise you're not watching Shakespeare. There are plenty of jumps, scares and cringing moments (as in "yuk!"), and though you know that quite a few of the cast aren't going to make the end of the film, it never descends to being a mere snuff movie. Ropey effects often let films of this genre down, making them a laughing stock instead of the shudderfest they aspire to be, but I found the animatronic and computer-generated snake reasonably realistic given that in fact nobody has ever discovered a 40ft anaconda. Certainly it shoots across the picture in the later sequences in a very convincing manner (many people profess themselves surprised by how fast snakes can move!). Wisely, the director also avoids the mistake of revealing his monster in its glory too early. Thus in the opening nerve-jangling shots of a solitary man on a boat being chased into a corner, we only see the look of fear and horror on his face: likewise in the next attack we only catch a glimpse of the snake's head in the darkness and then some coils being thrown around a puma in the night. Even the clichéd shots, eg a sudden underwater shot of a pair of human legs with the owner apparently oblivious to what may happen next, are used discerningly. Having said that, the snake attacks later in the film are sometimes violent, although not grossly so, and people who are nervous or downright afraid of snakes should be aware of this. Snake-lovers on the other hand may be upset about the violence meted out defensively to the anaconda, although again it is not overly cruel and if anything testifies to the power of a large reptile when upset!
The real evil in the film is not the anaconda, however, but Paul Soron the snake hunter, played fully and with zest by Jon Voight. Voight's character, muscular and somewhat exotic with his combed back hair and ponytail, is something of a madman, but ruthlessly cunning at the same time, starting off with great humility but then asserting himself more and more with leering and winking until he is fully in control of the stricken crew. Ironically he claims in one part that he once studied for the priesthood. In one sense the film is a good example of the classic "evil drifter from nowhere" story. Soron remains larger than life to the end, even coming back from the dead (I won't spoil it by revealing too much) to haunt his erstwhile victims one last time. Of the rest of the cast, all give fair to good performances. Eric Stoltz as the leader of the expedition is reasonable but spends quite a bit of the film unconscious after an underwater accident, while Jennifer Lopez is fairly spunky as the leader of the film unit. Ice Cube is also pretty good, proving that like some other rappers he can actually act. Jonathon Hyde is another larger than life character, typecast as usual as a caricature Englishman (see Titanic and The Mummy), this time with a fondness for spirits and golf. Having said that, he acts pretty well for what's expected of him. Mateo is suitable sleazy-looking, exchanging conspiratorial glances with Soron before the anaconda gets him.
Some concerned voices were raised among the herpetological fraternity that the film could only damage the already fragile sympathy that the general public have for reptiles and those who keep them. In some quarters this may sadly be true, but then those who are truly set in their ways or invincibly ignorant will probably need no justification to strengthen their prejudices. Nowhere in the film is it implied that all snakes are dangerous or should be wiped out: in fact despite the fact that baby anacondas are found lurking in a nest, only the fully-grown creature dies. If anything the story may increase the awe felt at such a leviathan, and towards other large constrictors, monitor lizards or crocodiles.
This raises the other question: is there possibly really a gigantic 40-ft constrictor out there in the jungle? Certainly rumours have persisted from time immemorial, but if there is such a creature it has remained surprisingly elusive given its size. A New York society (I believe) offered a large cash prize many years for anyone yielding irrefutable proof of the creature, and so far nobody has been able to claim it. Nevertheless, given the size some crocodiles reached in prehistoric times, and the fact that "cold-blooded" creatures need only about 10% of the food intake of similar-sized "warm-blooded" animals, it is not beyond the boundaries of possibility that such a one may exist, or at least may have done so until recently. Readers may however rest assured that they are unlikely to ever encounter one, even in the Amazon.
For a brief overview of the anaconda species, click here.
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