Getting under the skin of Anaconda

Nineties giant snake movie Anaconda comes under James's microscope. Could it be more than just another scaly B-movie?

“You don’t know shit about the shit we’re in here!” Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson) in Anaconda. That sentence pretty accurately sums up most people’s appreciation of both the movie Anaconda, life in general and the state of the Universe. When you’ve finished reading this article, you will know some shit.

Do you remember Anaconda? The 1997 killer snake film starring Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube and Jon Voight? It had the tagline “When you can’t breathe you can’t scream”? It got nominated for six Razzies but, in spite of such ignominy, went on to become a cult hit and spawned three sequels?

Until a couple of weeks ago I didn’t remember Anaconda because I’d never seen it. Somehow this pleasure had passed me by, and it existed as a sizeable hole in my pop cultural consciousness – a hole the size of “the world’s biggest snake”. I don’t know how I managed to miss Anaconda or just never cross its path but there you go and that was the situation. Then recently – fortunately – that changed and it was all thanks to social media pressure.

Twitter – which I sometimes feel should be called ‘Hisser’ – is only really useful for two things: one, enthusing about your favourite films; and two, engaging in geek conversation and trading obscure in-jokes with others who have similar sympathies and get your references. You can also have some fun following the bro-ventures of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, I guess, but that’s not really important in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Anaconda is, so I’ll get back to that and business of trading references and swapping film recommendations.

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One day I was idly doing that with an upstanding gentleman named Patrick Sproull, who has written stuff for this fine website. I’m guessing he’d just rewatched Anaconda because he was praising it as “one of the greatest films of the 90s.” He suffixed that with the simple statement “Say nothing” so read into that what you will. Instead I decided I would say something because I was bored (clearly, because I was on Twitter) and, duly, sent a reply.

I remarked that the first thing I think of when I see or hear the word ‘anaconda’ is the hilarious blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, because “Anaconda Malt Liquor gives you oooooooh!” (If that means nothing to you, I urge you to seek out Black Dynamite and avoid Anaconda Malt Liquor) I also added that I hadn’t seen Anaconda and this really upset Patrick. He demanded that I rectify this heinous error and went on to gush about Anaconda’s gloriousness while dancing, I imagine, to a particular Nicki Minaj track in snakeskin booties because that day he was all about everything ‘anaconda’.

He also said that he’d love me forever if I savoured its goodness and, because I’m so insecure and lonely, I decided to comply. One week later he tweeted me again saying he was “not impressed” about my not watching Anaconda yet (how did he know?) so I thought I better get on it. What’s more, his avatar is The Lego Movie‘s Vitruvius – the wise old wizard with the voice of Morgan Freeman – and that felt significant, like I was a “special” set on a quest of immense importance. “I should listen to this strange sage figure on the other side of the internet!” I cried out to myself. “Anaconda! Bring it!”

I managed to find the movie hidden in the cable TV schedules and set it to record. I woke up especially extra early on a Monday morning for the viewing experience, because a creature feature is always the best way to start the week. (Anaconda Malt Liquor would, of course, be the very worst way to start the week.)

The next 90 minutes were quite something. I had myself a high time with Anaconda‘s B-movie thrills, old-fashioned action-adventure flick sensibilities and simple, straightforward thrust. Feeling so 90s, it touched some nostalgic buttons as well as bringing the required killer animal action and all the other beats I’d expect and want from a cinematic beast of this kind.

Director Luis Llosa’s film is perfectly paced, features some nice rainforest photography and all the action scenes are gripping. Anaconda has genuine, compelling suspense and throughout I was hanging on not sure what was going to happen next or which character would become the next fatality. Those protagonists are all well-essayed by solid actors acquitting themselves well and completely committing to what could easily be dismissed as schlocky material. And then there’s Jon Voight whose commitment is something exceptional and needs to be exalted as some of the finest crazy-ham you can find on celluloid, but we’ll come back to the Voight-strom later.

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Anaconda is, quite frankly, ace. Aside from a few bits of dated, iffy CGI and a shot of waterfall running backwards (lazy recycling and reversing of footage, for shame) the film stands up as a good action yarn. It’s as decent as – if not better than – most run-of-the-mill genre pics you could find at the multiplex today, albeit with slightly lesser special effects and a shorter runtime (which is actually welcome).

The movie definitely didn’t deserve those six Razzie nominations and the reputation that precedes it – a reputation that leads ignoramuses like me into expecting an absolute craptastrophe. Anaconda is, in fact, amongst the runners (sliders? Slippers? Slitherers?) for a place in the Cinematic Snake Attack Hall of Fame. It’s never going to rise up and triumph over Raiders Of The Lost Ark or the original Conan The Barbarian but it’s certainly got the chops and the chutzpah to make its presence felt at any official Cinematic Snake Attack Hall of Fame soiree. It definitely elevates itself above Snakes On A Plane and – as far as high-concept 90s action-horrors go – it’s in the same league as Tremors and Mimic.

My man Patrick’s claim that Anaconda is “one of the greatest films of the 90s” is an overstatement, but I agree that the flick is something a wee bit special. After watching and providing enthusiastic feedback to my dealer – an appropriate title because that dude hooked me up and got me hooked on some dope – I realised that Anaconda is more than just a knockabout creature feature.

As I offered up my report to an invisible figure who may actually be Vitruvius from The Lego Movie, Anaconda uncoiled before my mind’s eye. While watching I’d been enjoying the film on a shallow level, but those murky jungle waters are a lot deeper than the surface impression suggests – deep enough to hide Earth’s biggest snake and myriad shadowy mysteries.

You should never judge a book by its cover or a snake by its skin (especially when it’s shedding it to grow even bigger). Pondering on this motion picture – opening my mind and stepping back to study it holistically – I experienced a grand, unsettling revelation. Anaconda is more than a mere killer animal B-movie boating around the Amazon backwaters. Anaconda is a pointed message movie and a metaphysical discourse.

(Disclaimer: Anaconda may not be a pointed message movie-cum-metaphysical discourse and this may not be the reading the filmmakers intended. It is also true that my especial reading of Anaconda, as detailed below, may offend those who spiritually align themselves one of the Abrahamic religions. It is not my wish to upset anyone or challenge anyone’s faith – I am simply objectively presenting a possible angle on a work of art, coloured possibly by my own personal background as a student of both film and religion. You are free to make up your own mind. As illustrated by Room 237 – the documentary about the many crazy conspiracy theories surrounding The Shining – people take all kinds of lessons and philosophies out of films, and many of them are utterly ludicrous and probably not worth serious consideration. Maybe.)

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Ultimately, Anaconda’s agenda is this: critique the good/evil duality of monotheistic Abrahamic faiths and condemn the theological notion of God as the Almighty force to worship, praise and obey. It does this by way of analogy and its protagonists function as representations of entities in the cosmic equation while its narrative hammers home its ideology.

In this story the titular mega-serpent is the Devil, which is obvious because the symbolic link between snakes and His Satanic Majesty is well-known. Yet in Anaconda the main villain is not actually the anaconda – the real big bad is actually Jon Voight’s perverse Paraguayan poacher Paul Serone and he is a stand-in for God. At least, he’s a representation of one unpleasant idealisation of God – an envisioned ‘God’ that is wrathful, patronisingly patriarchal, controlling and indifferent to – or, in fact, sadistically entertained by – human suffering.

Imagine someone with a grudge against ‘God’ forming the worst possible impression from the Old Testament and the fearful fire-and-brimstone sermonising of zealous Puritans and Christian fundamentalists. That’s the ‘God’ of Anaconda, in a way like the angry perceived ‘God’ that Kirk faces down in Star Trek: The Final Frontier except he wants a big snake (the Devil) as opposed to a starship. What’s more, this ‘God’ is formed in man’s own image – in the shape of Jon Voight – and he leers and sneers and eyeballs humanity like a hungry vulture.

Humanity is represented, of course, by the multi-ethnic miscellaneous crew who are in South America to shoot a documentary for National Geographic. Their mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations; to boldly go where no man has gone before. Oh, sorry, that’s actually the Starship Enterprise, but this little vessel has a similar objective.

Doc director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez) and her colleagues are seeking the Shirishama tribe, exploring the unfathomed depths of the Amazon rainforest and, I guess, boldly going where no cameraman has gone before. Just like The Final Frontier, they end up coming into contact with a cruel, warped version of ‘God’. From here there are spoilers, so only proceed if you want Anaconda – and possibly organised religion – ruined for you.

Let there be lights, camera, action. In the beginning our empathetic kindred spirits start out from Manaus to commence their voyage through the Amazon – a lush garden of Eden. They are driven by curiosity and are searching for connection, knowledge, self-fulfilment and the feeling that they are a part of wider nature. They desire to reach life’s unattained secrets and they are a little unsure and possibly even lost they go about this journey. Enter ‘God’ – Serone – to guide them, an odd figure appearing out of nowhere.

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Serone claims to know where the Shirishama tribe dwell so, in effect, ‘God’ puts himself forward as the sage omniscient to follow, his superior knowledge worthy of reverence. But there comes a point where this apparently all-knowing singular figure’s fallibility is exposed. The humble crew struggle to get their head around his odd ways and eccentric character and his supreme intelligence is outright doubted when anthropologist Cale (Eric Stoltz) corrects an inaccurate story about the Shirishama.

‘God’ is affronted by this impudence and, feeling undermined and threatened, reacts in vindictive fashion. Serone places a wasp in Cale’s snorkel and it stings him in the throat – the heretic symbolically silenced as ‘God’ quells and punishes the voice of doubt in order to assert his pre-eminent control. From there, the ride down the river of life is a journey completely dictated by the self-appointed overlord’s pre-eminent, inviolable control.

Serone hijacks the quest and forcefully coerces the crew towards his ends – namely finding and conquering the Devil. This abomination was not going to trouble the humans and only comes to be a serious issue once ‘God’ has made it into a pressing problem and established it as an antagonist in opposition to himself. “You brought the Devil!” production manager Denise (Kari Wuhrer) cries quite correctly at one juncture. “There’s a Devil inside everyone,” sneers ‘God’ in reply to further enforce the dread of soul damnation and augment his status as the greater force in this life-and-death battle for salvation.

He utilises the fear of this terrible Devil – a fear accentuated by the scarred Serone’s several ominous speeches – to manipulate the mass crowd now under his thumb. The corruption of Gary (Owen Wilson) is pertinent as Serone’s promises of later shiny reward after the ordeal – a glorious afterlife, wealth and safe comfort equated with Heaven – secure the blonde sound engineer’s unconditional support. He surrenders to ‘God’ and trusts in him completely because of the belief that they “don’t know shit” about the shit they’re in.

Of course, that shit has been fabricated by Serone and it’s a major distraction – a fatal distraction – to the mere mortals who were seeking self-actualisation. Realising this, the crew rebel against the malevolent manifestation of the monotheistic deity – “asshole in one” as Westridge (Jonathan Hyde) puts it after whacking Serone with a golf club.

At the climax, the survivors smash the rigid good/evil dichotomy by blowing up both the serpent and Serone in a mill. It’s possible that the setting alludes to the decline of religion’s all-encompassing influence in industrialised society following ‘The Enlightenment’ and the ascent of rationalist philosophy. Regardless, the remaining humans float on down the river of life and eventually find the Shirishama by themselves. They can make their documentary – the film that will be Terri’s “big break” and I read that as being a spiritual breakthrough as well.

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Anaconda is either ushering the audience towards finding peace in pantheism or nature worship traditions as practised by cultures like the Shirishama or is an explicit advocate of atheism. It may be seen as a triumph of humanist freewill counter to theological constructs and dogmatic doctrines of Abrahamic religious authorities. Once again, this may not be the intended reading of the filmmakers and the cast. It’s important to note, here, that Ice Cube identifies as a Muslim and that Jennifer Lopez has put her Roman Catholic faith on record (see her track Jenny From The Block in which she expresses her need to “put God first”).

Such things are at odds with my assessment of Anaconda, and it’s entirely possible that I’m over thinking this and hyper-theorising what may simply just be a 90s B-movie. On the other hand, maybe there is a grander conspiracy at work with something of The Da Vinci Code about it, except the plot to discredit the ecclesiastical authorities is encoded in the frames of a creature feature. Anaconda is out to attack God and deconstruct the fundamental metaphysical structure that is the foundation for the major monotheistic faiths and the ideological basis for the Western world’s moral outlook.

I’m not sure and now I’m in a daze and wondering if, Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo-style, I’ve lost my mind on this trip up the jungle river. How did I end up in this mess? Why did that digital wizard search me out and ensnare me in this esoteric mystery? Am I going to be murdered in my sleep by a deranged albino monk because of my discoveries? And Jon Voight’s performance: what the hell?

I have no solid answers here (I mean, I don’t know shit about the shit I’m in here). All I can be certain of is that I’ve taken the following things from this experience. Firstly, sometimes amazing discoveries and spiritual enlightenment occur when you converse with erudite pop culture enthusiasts on Twitter (Hisser). Furthermore, every film is worth a deeper look and is worthy of consideration and hyper-analytical deconstruction on a cerebral, philosophical level. That was definitely true for Anaconda. It gave me “ooooooh…”

James Clayton is going to hell with a giant CGI snake, Jon Voight’s sneer, Captain Kirk and a bottle of Anaconda Malt Liquor. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s last column here.

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