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One of the biggest discussion topics among cinephiles -- courtesy of the recent Oscar season -- is whether Hollywood is petering out because it can't produce the kind of probing, intelligent films that independents crank out. The tragedy, supposedly, is that special-effects extravaganzas are all the studios know how to do anymore. Anaconda, the latest such exercise in costly cheap thrills, proves that's not the problem at all.

The pressing concern is: Can Hollywood even do trash well anymore? How the hell do you screw up something as rudimentary as a killer-snake flick? In other words, let's not worry that Hollywood can't make Secrets and Lies until we figure out how junk food such as Anaconda wriggled from its grasp. After we spend weeks on Oscar buildup and release, catching up on photographed literature such as The English Patient or feel-good, good-for-you human interest stories (Shine) and underdog American art (Sling Blade), movies on the order of Anaconda are supposed to be our reward. They throw us right back into the commercial tidewaters, and we're supposed to whoop and holler as we rush along with the current, knowing full well that ahead lies ... summer! Event movies! Dinosaurs! Sequels! Superheroes! Explosions! James Cameron!

Anaconda, at the least, should have been an exotic reptilian appetizer, something slithery and suspenseful and finally heart-pounding and cathartically disgusting. A quick look at the history of snake scarers, a modest bunch that includes the passable SSSSSSS and the impossible Venom, reveals that it shouldn't have been too difficult to make some knockoff Alien/Jaws hybrid with enough tongue-in-cheek humor, white-knuckle moments and gross-out visuals to send zoo attendance figures skyrocketing. Sadly, though, the idiotic and entertainment-free Anaconda doesn't include anything remotely as icky-scary as the tomb of snakes scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Anaconda's ads say, "When you can't breathe, you can't scream." True, but you can snore.

The setup follows a documentary crew -- anthropologist Steven (Eric Stoltz), director Terri (Jennifer Lopez), cameraman Danny (Ice Cube), soundman Gary (Owen Wilson), production manager Denise (Kari Wuhrer) and narrator Warren (Jonathan Hyde) -- as they ferry a barge along the treacherous Amazon River in search of a legendary tribe called the Shirishama Indians. If that seems an inordinately large number of people for a documentary crew, especially for so dangerous and potentially fruitless a jaunt as theirs, remember that a body count is needed for films like this. Still -- they bring the narrator with them?

As this multicolored band of victims wend their way through the Brazilian rain forest, they come upon a stranded boat, whereupon they are joined by blustery Paraguayan loner-mercenary Paul Sarone. Paul is looking to capture alive a reported 40-foot anaconda -- "the perfect killing machine," he calls the wraparound menace -- and figures he can enlist his new travel companions in his quest. He leads them into Heart of Darkness territory, of course, where the scaly threat starts picking off the cast one by one -- encircling its victim, squeezing, swallowing whole, then regurgitating so it can nosh at its convenience. (I think this happens to screenwriters a lot in Hollywood.)

Paul, crazy enough for any documentary crew to want to follow instead of some silly old tribe, is of course the human part of the movie's evil equation, and he's played by a real Academy Award winner, Jon Voight. I'm starting to believe, however, that human cloning has already been at work in Hollywood, because the Jon Voight who starred in Coming Home and Midnight Cowboy and the Jon Voight who serves slice after slice of fully cooked ham in Anaconda are so far from each other as to lend an air of science fiction to the proceedings. Paul is meant to be a Robert Shaw-in-Jaws figure: the mysterious, accented, colorfully threatening expert on the film's nonhuman predator. He's part savior, part demon, all man.

But Voight, whose speechifying on the horrors of the anaconda ("It holds you tighter than your true love" being my favorite) is usually accompanied by constipated sneers, is so bad -- imagine Desi Arnaz as Shaw's Quint -- that he becomes the only thing worth watching. Still, Paraguay should rise in protest.

The other cast members look like they not only don't know where the snake is, they don't know where their parts went. Lopez has the unfortunately scripted line, "This was supposed to be my big break, now it's my big disaster" -- which should make her grateful for Selena. Stoltz's character magically disappears from the movie while recuperating from a wasp sting -- for which the audience should be grateful. And Ice Cube's typically unmatched sneer is left looking merely perturbed in the wake of Voight's facial freak show. Wilson's horny, lost surfer demeanor is a far cry from the philosophical bemusement of Bottle Rocket -- he had more personality getting beaten up by Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy than becoming boa fodder here.

As for the real star -- the snake -- the computer graphics are so hopelessly cheesy, it's as if the cast were grappling with a 'toon; they should have called it Snake Jam. Director Luis Llosa so haphazardly orients things you can barely figure out what's going on half the time. It's not suspense, it's confusion.

I don't think audiences ask much from an Anaconda. But one would like to imagine that the appearance of mindlessness requires more thought and ingenuity than is evidenced here. After all, with a killer snake movie, the idea is to have the hiss coming from the screen, not the audience.

Anaconda.
Directed by Luis Llosa. With Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, and Ice Cube.

Rated R.
90 minutes.

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