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'Anaconda': Snakebit

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 11, 1997

  Movie Critic

Scene from this movie

Luis Llosa
Jon Voight;
Jennifer Lopez;
Ice Cube;
Eric Stoltz;
Owen Wilson;
Jonathan Hyde;
Kari Wuhrer;
Vincent Castellanos
Running Time:
1 hour, 30 minutes
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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When we watch a horror movie, we are -- in a sense -- sitting for dinner. We savor the coming repast, as the movie (with the indulgence, but rarely the eloquence, of a head waiter) introduces us to the cast -- the collective catch of the day.

We don bibs as we assess each characterís dim chances of survival. Itís usually thumbs-down for the obnoxious, the promiscuous and the black. The lucky ones are usually the innocents, the irreducibly pure, and in some cases, those actors who also executive-produced the movie.

But this is one meal we watch rather than eat. The actual gorging is done by the monster of the moment, whether itís a shark, an alien, Freddy Krueger or -- in the case of "Anaconda" -- a snake.

Make that a 40-foot animatronic snake, a special-effects sucker that can leap through the air and drape you in coils faster than you can say "Michelin Man." It sucks you down like human sushi. Then, as the opening titles inform us, it likes to regurgitate its prey -- just so it can eat the victim twice. Holy human hairball, Batman, whatís the scientific term for such a creature, serpentus bulimicus? And while weíre at it, whatís the Latin for "slither away from this movie while you can"?

In the story, by Hans Bauer, Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., anthropologist Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz) leads a documentary film unit into the Amazon to record the elusive "people of the mist." Iím not referring to residents of London. I mean the never-before-photographed Shirishama Indians. Caleís crew consists of director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez), cameraman Danny Rich (Ice Cube), sound mixer Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson), production manager Denise Kalberg (Kari Wuhrer) and a neurotic British narrator named Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde). Also along for the ride is boat pilot Mateo (Vincent Castellanos). Everyone looks potentially expendable.

Their fate changes for the doomed when they run into stranded Paraguayan wayfarer Paul Sarone (Jon Voight), a priest-turned-snake hunter. With serpentine cunning, intimidation and a revolver, he assumes command of the riverboat and leads them into the darkest lair of the giant anaconda.

The story is useless, of course; thereís nothing distinctive about it in the least. But is it scary? Thatís the big question. It depends on where you stand on obviously fake snakes. The illusion of a dynamic, scaly monster is attempted with an impressive array of animatronics, computer-generated imagery and shots of real snakes. But weíre struck by the snakeís artificiality rather than its believability. "Anaconda" feels like "Alien" as directed by Jim Henson. And the suspense is restricted to mundane slasher-movie tactics, including the frequent use of a mobile camera (call it the ícondacam) thatís supposed to represent the snakeís point of view.

There is some wit about the production: Voightís performance is kind of fun to watch. With his slimy nature, furtive eyes and evil agenda, heís clearly playing an upright snake. And Ice Cube, whoís always good for a sour comment or two, mumbles some moderately funny one-liners. There is also one very, uh, special jungle-dining moment thatís saved for the sardonic end. But, if a movieís most salient feature has to do with reptilian hurling, you should probably pass on this vicarious dining opportunity.

ANACONDA (PG-13) ó Contains violence, profanity and minor sexual situations. No animals were harmed during filming, although some human careers were strangled.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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