*Contains some spoilers*
With the exception of being shot in 3D and reworking the killer piranha into living artifacts from the Pleistocene age which an earthquake freed from a sealed underground lake, there is nothing new in Piranha 3D, and yet Alexnadre Aja’s compact shocker delivers every nuance fans of seventies thrillers demand, and with striking gusto.
Joe Dante’s original Piranha (1978) was a low-rent rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but Dante and writer John Sayles crafted their film as a tongue-in-cheek horror film, which allowed the pair to add a combination of silliness and gore that would’ve ruined the plotted tension in Spielberg’s film.
Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981) was a blatant cash-in, and although directed by James Cameron, the Italian production felt like a cheap cash-in, goosing the killer fish with wings, and banal dialogue lazily translated into cheap English, and performed by a generally awful batch of untrained thespians. What the Italians did bring into the unexpected franchise was boobies, and whole scenes were designed purely to show-off the tanned orbs – underwater, and all shiny and happy under tropical sunlight. (Roger Corman's scene-for-scene 1995 cable TV remake of the '78 film also contained a high T&A quotient, but offered nothing new to the franchise.)
Aja’s film pays loving homage to the killer fish sub-genre by smartly sticking to a tried and true formula of setting the bloodfest in a small tourist town whose economic survival depends on a week of crass Spring Break partygoers littering their harbor with boats, concerts, booze, and an unending parade of jiggle bodies.
It’s the same template as Jaws: local sheriff Julie Forester (Oscar-winner Elizabeth Shue) gets concerned about potential waterborne danger when the cadaver of a fisherman (Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss) is discovered, and before she can shut down the party animals, her duties are potentially compromised by her son Jake (Steven R. McQueen), whose abandoned his babysitting responsibilities and gone off for some fun, and now needs to be rescued.
Like Jaws 2 (1978), writers Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Sorority Row) re-use the ploy of separating the sheriff’s family in order to bring them together for an elaborate rescue sequence in the end, but screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Sorority Row) have completely shorn their script of any melodrama and any small town politics to keep the film’s focus on sex and violence.
Cop Julie’s a single mom of three kids, but we never know her backstory, and nor does she get any love interest beyond a helping hand from egghead / geologist Adam Scott; there’s just professional friendship between Julie and deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), and local fish expert Mr. Goodman (Chritopher Lloyd) is just kind of there to tell the characters (and audiences) that the piranha are really, really old, and hunt in deadly packs.
That leaves any wafers of characterizations to college age Jake, on again / off again girlfriend Kelly (Gossip Girl’s Jessica Szohr), and Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell), a girls-gone-wild internet producer who’s hired Jake as a location scout for isolated coves where Derrick and his cinematographer can film two women – Danni (Kelly Brook) and Crystal (Riley Steele) - exposing their mammaries in and out of water.
There are two reasons this film was shot in 3D: gore, and jiggling, and there are more butt shots in Piranha 3D than Gamer (2009), which had a fairly high quotient of ass and breast cleavage. Being European himself, Aja exploits the benefits of an R-rating and films as much boob and buttock action as possible, sometimes designing whole scenes around jigglitude, such as a wet T-shirt contest where Eli Roth sprays water on the women’s “weapons of masturbation,” and Derrick’s wild girls stripping to their birthday suits for a lengthy underwater ballet des lesbos, touching and fondling themselves for Derrick’s cameras while Delibes’ Lakmé streams from the soundtrack.
The nudity is completely ridiculous, but it suits the already dopey spring break sequences to which Aja intercuts as Jake and the wild ones stop and setup sequences for Derrick’s cameras. When the fish start attacking, Aja and cinematographer John R. Leonetti recreate the Jaws beach massacre with an Eastmancolor scheme that emphasizes flesh tones.
The entire assault runs something along the lines of 14 minutes, and the KNB practical gore effects are magnificently disgusting. Bodies tear in half after the piranha have devoured too much of the torso superstructures, limbs float along the surface, faces are chewed off, and no one really dies quickly (except for Roth, whose decapitation and cranial implosion by an askew boat is frankly awesome, because he’s a terrible, terrible actor).
The digital piranha seen in trailers and the 9 min. ComicCon sampler reel weren’t wholly finished, and while they’re not exactly convincing, their final rendering is fine, since they’re generally seen in packs.
The 3D effects are bland indoors and only come to life outside with moving objects, or when a main object or individual isn’t cluttered by peripheral matter. The CGI effects enhance the practical gore, whereas others are pure novelties, such as a fish bursting through a girl’s mouth with intestinal crud after munching its way up her esophagus. (One indulgence has Kelly puking foamy tequila into the camera.)
The attacks are also reigned in to the extent that people don’t die in a giant spout of blood; the water foams and rapidly explodes into red, but it’s still based in a rational perception of a piranha feeding frenzy. However, the blood that stains every while boat is fiery red, as are the bites and flesh tears in the damaged and dying hedonists.
O’Connell’s portrayal of a coke-snorting pervert who lives to film breasts seems to have been designed as a prelude for his grisly death: always thinking with his member instead of his noggin, Derrick’s lower half is chewed to the bone, and when he’s dragged onto the bow, he laments “They took my penis,” after which Aja not only shows a piranha eating and spitting out his floating dongle, but the silicone wafers of his now dead wild girl co-star – visual gags worthy of Roth, if not blutmeister H.G. Lewis.
Once Julie arrives on the scene, she helps rescue her kids from the sinking wild-girl boat, and the fish are wiped out using a low-tech solution that works for the film. The filmmakers could’ve mucked up the film with technobabble and a reliance on fancy gear, but it’s basic fire that solves the problem.
Shue plays her role with needed gravitas, but she’s got very little to work with and is basically a hybrid comprised of Chief Brody and your everyday mom. Rhames is just there to fill the deputy’s booths until he’s devoured, Lloyd has about three scenes, and Dina Meyer is in a blink-fast role as one the divers in Adam’s team whose discovery of the underground lake is rewarded with a slow death.
Dreyfuss, however, has one of the funniest cameos in recent years. Appearing in the opening teaser, he plays a fisherman who’s dragged into a whirlpool when an earthquake cracks open the lake floor and exposes the underground lake. Prior to his demise, he whistles a merry tune – “Show Me the Way to Go Home” – the song he (as Matt Hooper), Chief Brody, and shark hunter Sam Quint sing before the giant shark smashes into the hull of Quint’s ship in Jaws.
Michael Wandmacher’s score is thematically sparse and focuses pretty much on mood – attacks, aftermath, and imminent danger – but the film isn’t reliant on too many clichéd music montages.
After a series of disappointing productions – writing P2 (2007), writing / directing Mirrors (2008) – Alexandre Aja is back in form, and while Piranha 3D doesn’t offer anything new to the interactive format (maybe 2 or 3 images actually extend a smidge into the audience), the 3D effects are as cheesy as the eighties genre classics.
To read an interview with composer Michael Wandmacher, click HERE.
Sequel: Piranha 3DD [M] (2012).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan