It's clear from the outset that producers of this 1997 film were hoping to recapture the magic and runaway success of "Jaws." But "Jaws" was a blockbuster with powerful acting and an iconic monster, and "Anaconda" . . . well, "Anaconda" is just another B-movie creature-feature.
The creature is okay, but there aren't many surprises in the plot. Then again, the genre really hasn't changed all that much since "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). An expedition travels down the Amazon River and we're made aware of a creature before the explorers get a clue. Eventually, there's a clash between the creature and the people, and what passes for plot in the meantime is a lot of chatter aboard the boat and attempts at character reveals and conflicts.
With a film like this or a slasher film, the real sport is to predict who's going to be eaten or killed next. As we watched, our entire family guessed correctly--though to be fair we hadn't anticipated one "incapacitation." Yet, for a thriller this had surprisingly little tension in between the action scenes, despite a feeble attempt at musical cues ala the "Jaws" duh-da duh-da duh-da duh-da riffs. In fact, the biggest surprise from "Anaconda" is that we don't get a scene that's almost obligatory for these kind of thrillers: a wet braless t-shirt or compromising half-nude shot of the female star, in this case Jennifer Lopez, who really doesn't come across as having much charisma in this film. Cube and Wilson are fun, and so is the Brit, but they're all drawn in broad strokes, and none of their performances are worth noting.
That leaves the gorgeous scenery/cinematography and creature special effects, which will enthrall adults and children, respectively. Somewhere in-between lies the performance of Jon Voight, who holds his mouth in a downturned sneer of disdain throughout the film and manufactures an accent that's supposed to be consistent with his Paraguayan character--a poacher who supplies exotic snakes illegally to zoos and collectors. But he plays it a little hammy and so villainous that you wonder why in the world they allow him to come onboard when they pass his stranded boat. There's also little mystery for viewers, because he wears his sneering little heart on his sleeve and his ponytail in Steven Segal style. But I'll say this for Voight. You may forget his character's name (Paul Sarone), but you won't forget Voight's performance. If he had a moustache he'd be twirling it like the villain who tied poor Pauline to the railroad tracks and gleefully waited for the skirt to hit the fan. He really has fun with the film, perhaps more fun than anyone else, including the audience.
The premise is that film director Terri Flores (Lopez) is headed deep into the Amazon jungle with anthropologist Steven Cale (Eric Stolz) on a quest to find a legendary lost tribe that's been isolated from civilization. Flores is making a film about the journey for National Geographic. Accompanying them is the prissy Brit who will narrate the project (Jonathan Hyde), cameraman Danny Rich (Ice Cube), sound man Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson), production assistant Denise Kalberg (Kari Wuhrer), and the captain of the river boat who takes them into forbidden territory (Vincent Castellanos), whose name ("Mateo") bears a striking resemblance to the boat. Not surprisingly, Cube and Wilson are there for comic relief, with the funniest and most memorable line coming from the latter as he comes on to Denise: "Is it just me, or does the jungle make you really, really horny?" Yeah, I'll have to remember that line the next time I'm in the jungle and I'm NOT about to be eaten.
There's an implied history between Mateo and Sarone, but we never really get much in the way of details. Partly that's because Sarone swats away criticism the way he does mosquitoes. When Mateo argues against bringing him onboard because he's a five-whiskey-a-day river rat, Sarone quips, "Five whiskeys? That's breakfast on the river!"
Funny moments and gorgeous location footage make this boat trip less tedious than it could have been, plus there are a number of scenes that are "high concept"--like a wasp in the mouth, an aerial attack by the snake, a flaming anaconda, and a human who kills with the crush of his legs. Trouble is, the action isn't frequent enough, and director Luis Llosa ("Eight Hundred Leagues Down the Amazon") isn't able to squeeze much downtime tension out of the Hans Bauer and Jim Cash screenplay. The CGI and animatronic work is okay, but there are times when you're thinking fake, when I don't recall ever thinking that of ol' Jaws. Or maybe the rest of that film was so engaging that you were willing to believe just about anything. Unfortunately, that's not the case here. You have to just accept his on its own terms--a campy B-movie with some memorable scenes and strong scenery, if not acting--in order to enjoy it.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a good one. A nice 3-dimensionality and rich, natural-looking colors are the selling points, but the black levels and level of detail is also quite good. Fleshtones are natural, and there are plenty of different shades, too. I haven't seen the DVD, but I can't imagine it looking this good. Close-ups of the snake and everyday objects yield strong edges. There's a slight graininess in some of the misty scenes, but for the most part each frame is richly detailed. "Anaconda" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. I did experience playback problems at one point, with squiggles of distortion lasting several seconds, but it's not clear whether it's an issue with the disc or the player.
The audio is also strong. Sony has been going with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and the options here are English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. For a change, Spanish doesn't get short shrift, and Sony is to be commended for sticking with an audio that's geared for Hi-Def playback rather than throwing in lesser tracks. But the bass is nice and rich, and the rear speakers get involved so that as that boat chugs deeper into the jungle you feel surrounded by the sounds of the jungle. There's no distortion, either. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Those who read my reviews already know how I feel about BD-Live. I'd rather the studios perfected playback rather than futzing around with Internet interactivity. I mean, here's the description from the Sony press release: "Download exclusive content, register for rewards, give feedback through our survey and more!" You really have to add that exclamation point, because none of it is exciting. If you have "exclusive content," I say just put it on the darned disc and let everyone who purchases the product enjoy it. Not everyone connects their Blu-ray players to the Internet. In fact, we ought to do a survey at DVD Town, because I'll bet that 30 percent of our readers have Blu-ray players, and out of those I'd be surprised if as much as 20 percent had their players wired to the Internet.
"Imagine, something this big, captured alive. It would be worth a lot of money," says a sneering Sarone, who as a youngster must have only watched the first half of "King Kong." But hey, "Anaconda" is campy fun if you're into B-movie creature features. Just don't look at the star list and think that the film is going to transcend the genre, because it most certainly doesn't.