The 40-foot-long animatronic star of Anaconda has eyes like flashlight bulbs and skin like radial tires. It slithers its way through the spooky Amazon River looking for snacks of monkeys and hapless human beings foolish enough to muck around in the waters of B-movie horror settings. When it gets hungry or sometimes just crotchety, it whips its way up trees, boat decks, and even buildings. And when it does, this baby takes on the peculiar look of a huge garden hose on the run, with fangs.
Anaconda, directed by Luis Llosa with all of the subtlety of a snake-oil salesman, is in the great tradition of cinematic cheese, as processed as Kraft Singles slices. With its direct-to-video-type title, it's the kind of retro, eek! eek! production that studios don't often make anymore, now that movies about tornadoes and invasions by aliens have become too expensive to be taken humorously by the companies that foot the bills. The makers of Anaconda appear to have no such qualms. Without winking, like Scream, at its own provenance, the story (slapped together with a diagrammatic script by Hans Bauer, Jim Cash, and Jack Epps Jr.) is a blurry clone of a clone of Jaws, which is to say Moby Dick, which is to say the battle between an obsessive loner and his amoral quarry, during which everybody in the neighborhood suffers.
In this case, Jon Voight is the wacko a sneering ex-priest called Paul Sarone, with an accent second in incomprehensibility only to that of Rod Steiger in Llosa's previous sack of cinematic junk food, The Specialist. Sarone, apparently shipwrecked, is picked up on the Amazon by a barge carrying a documentary film crew tracking a shy Indian tribe. The passengers include director Terri (Jennifer Lopez, this season's hardest-working woman in showbiz); anthropologist Steven (Eric Stoltz, the palest dude ever to roast in the Amazonian sun); cameraman Danny (Boyz N the Hood's Ice Cube), for whom a mother-size snake is a piece of cake compared with life in L.A.; and production manager Denise (MTV's Kari Wuhrer), in the classic role of the girl who makes out with her boyfriend in the wrong place, shrieks, and sobs.
Sarone sneakily steers his hosts deeper into the jungle, the better to pursue his mad quest catching a killer anaconda. When he rouses his personal Moby Dick, he won't turn back, even though the serpent is known to squeeze a body until the bones break, devour the corpse whole, and then upchuck the whole thing, the better to feast again later.
I give away nothing by saying that Stoltz is put out of commission early for un-snake-related reasons and spends the rest of the movie bedridden. And I spoil nothing by hinting that a boy from the hood has a better chance of survival than, say, a shrieking, sobbing chick. Acting is almost beside the point in Anaconda (except when it comes to Voight, for whom hilarious overacting is exactly the point), and this cast is on a summer-stock level of sophistication. I wish the big-guy anaconda were scarier and that the stalking sequences were more exciting. But a few snazzy high points (one involving that ralph-and-reheat action) are welcome, as is the movie's appropriate 90-minute length. This isn't brain surgery or even a comic-book superhero we're talking about here; it's a length of tubing. Anything longer would have been gilding the reptile. B-