'Anaconda' and the Return of the B-Movie

Anaconda -Photofest still - H 2020
The reboot of the 1997 feature hopes to join 'Crawl' and '47 Meters Down' in elevating concepts that only a few years ago would have been relegated to TV movies on Syfy and bargain bin DVDs in Walmart.

Just when you thought it was safe to travel down the Amazon River, something familiar is slithering its way back.

Friday The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that a reboot of 1997 adventure-horror film Anaconda is in the works at Sony's Columbia Pictures. The original film, centered on a group of documentarians looking for an indigenous tribe who encounter a legendary green anaconda in South America, helped launch the film careers of Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson. Co-starring Ice Cube, Jonathan Hyde, Kari Wuhrer, Eric Stoltz and Jon Voight, the 1997 film was far from a critical darling, but made $136.8 million on a $45 million budget. In recent years, the film has emerged as something of a cult classic thanks to a ridiculously thrilling third act and a performance by a ponytail-wearing Voight that’s half bad impersonation of Vito Corleone and half bad impersonation of Speedy Gonzales.

The film spawned one theatrical sequel and three made-for-TV installments, none of which seem to have made a lasting impression, making this reboot, for many, the first Anaconda movie of note since J.Lo battled a flaming snake head in the first one. What would have been a seemingly unlikely property to reboot a few years ago, now finds itself in good company as the B-movie creature feature and animals attack horror film sees a resurgence in theaters.

When a director of Quentin Tarantino’s caliber can end the year by saying that his favorite movie of 2019 was Crawl, the industry is bound to take notice. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker was quite taken with director Alexandre Aja’s film about a father and daughter trapped in a basement with alligators during a hurricane. For those familiar with the filmmaker’s best of the year of the past, which have included the likes of The Beaver (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013), his pick of a non-award season contender shouldn’t come as a surprise. But more than being an offbeat pick from one of Hollywood’s most pulp-loving directors, Crawl is also a wonderfully crafted horror film with strong performances from Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper — and no shortage of reptilian menace. While films of its ilk have been dismissed in the past, Crawl gained the approval of audiences and critics, and was a modest box office success for Paramount during a crowded summer season.

While Crawl is the best of the recent animal-centric horror films over the past few years, it’s also following the success of The Shallows (2016), 47 Meters Down (2017), The Meg (2018) and Rampage (2018). All of these films, though some more than others, took concepts that only a few years ago would have been relegated to TV movies on Syfy and bargain bin DVDs in Walmart and elevated them to the arena of theatrical experiences.

While none of these movies are particularly deep or complex, they do have something on their mind other than body counts and teeth tearing away flesh. Whether we’re talking about human survival in the enormity of nature, or how attempts to play god break the natural order of the world, this current subgenre of films hark back to a long history of nature-based horror from Them! (1954) to Piranha (1978). It was only when we thought we had nature under our control that these kinds of films fell to the wayside, becoming comedic excursions of excess in the era of Sharknado (2013).

But we don’t have nature under control. Horror films have always been our lens through which to view contemporary concerns. They’ve always been politically and socially charged. So while the idea of a giant snake movie carrying sociopolitical overtones is silly, it doesn’t make it any less true or necessary. It’s clear that climate change and animal preservation are two of the world’s biggest issues right now. From Greta Thunberg to the Trump administration’s rollbacks on waterway protections and the Endangered Species Act, our environment is a major concern. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, should nature- and animal-based horror become the next big genre trend.

So much about our world has changed since the first Anaconda movie. Not only in terms of the ecosystem, but our relationship to indigenous cultures. While the exposure of the tribe in the 1997 film was the final reward for its central characters, today it feels morally bankrupt and potentially insensitive. The secret indigenous tribe is a trope of pulp stories, but perhaps there’s a way in which our rediscovery of this form of storytelling and our newfound love affair with it can also elevate these tropes in a way that has greater impact.

Yes, Anaconda is a silly snake movie, but a reboot provides the opportunity for it to be more than that. Now feels like the perfect time for Anaconda to rear its head again, not only because of the B-movie joy it provides us followers of the modern cult canon, but because there’s an opportunity to make a film that wraps us up in our anxieties and hugs us tight, leaving survival up to us.