Directed by Alexandre Aja
Starring Elisabeth Shue, Jessica Szhor, Steven R. McQueen
Piranha 3D is for all the folks who were disappointed when the Kintner boy was the only swimmer to bite it in Jaws' infamous beach attack and then dismayed that the child never spilled "out all over the dock", as teased by Murray Hamilton. These same folks where probably underwhelmed by the lack of Chrissie flesh, the poor skinny dipper who meets her end in that classics's oft-imitated opening. Alexandre Aja is here for those folks with a film that's a go-for-broke feast of boobs, booze, sex, and blood that always teeters at the edge of stupid but never takes the leap directly into it.
The film (loosely based on Joe Dante's 1978 Piranha and James Cameron's (!) Piranha II: The Spawning) opens with a brilliant nod to it's most direct influence: Stephen Spielberg's aforementioned killer shark blockbuster. Richard Dreyfuss, in the film's best cameo, plays old and retired Matt Hooper. He sips Amity Beer on Lake Victoria, fishing while singing "Show Me the Way to Go Home." When he drops a beer bottle into the lake, he inadvertently opens up a passageway to a lake beneath the lake, which unleashes millions of ancient man-eating fish. Cue Christopher Lloyd as a wacky scientist, Ving Rhames wielding a boat propeller as a weapon, porn-star cameos, and the eating of many horny college students.
Spring break plays a major role in Piranha 3D, and it's a treat to watch Aja and his screenwriters, Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, tear into this ridiculous and boneheaded time-honored tradition. Since Piranha 3D is a movie and movies need narratives, no matter how spindly, our hero Jake (the bland Steven R. McQueen) is given the task of babysitting his younger siblings. As this is a movie about dumb behavior being rewarded with death and danger, Jake pays his siblings off, lies to his Sheriff mother (Elisabeth Shue), and takes off with douche bag extraordinaire Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), who plans on filming a Girls Gone Wild-esque porn-capade in a secluded location before joining the rest of the spring break partiers on the other side of the lake. Along for the ride is Jake's crush Kelly (Jessica Szohr), who exists only so that Jake has a reason to get all heroic by the film's last act.
There are points in Piranha 3D that are slow-going, although it starts off with that magnificent Jaws homage. The obligatory scenes setting up Jake and Kelly's relationship and Elizabeth Shue's character are plodding, and suffer from an over-abundance of unfunny jokes (including some made by Jake's smart-ass little sister. Oh look, another too big-for-her-britches little girl who says grown-up words like "boobies!"). The saving grace of these scenes is Jerry O'Connell, who takes his Joe Francis inspired misogynist frat-boy character and turns the jerk dial up to 11, ensuring that, although he meets the grossest death, there's no way the audience will feel bad for him.
Speaking of gross deaths, Piranha 3D has plenty. I had originally envisioned the deaths in this film as funny, silly gags. I was wrong. Aja and visual effects artist Greg Nicotero have created some truly grisly and borderline disturbing scenes of carnage. The film takes awhile to get to its glory point, but when that point comes its amazingly graphic and mean. But it's also fun. If I could choose any film from this summer to be on the set of, it would be Piranha 3D while what they filmed what I have dubbed the "Spring Break Massacre." The scale of this scene is kind of mind-blowing - thousands of spring break drunkards in the water being attacked by millions of man-eating fish. The pandemonium and fear in the scene is actually very potent and unnerving for a film this silly. One spring breaker makes for land on a speedboat, plowing over hundreds of helpless fellow party goers. When the boat stops and a girl gets her hair caught in the propeller it makes for one of the most impressive gore gags I've seen in quite some time. Lots of skin is torn, and limbs are gnawed off dozens of folks, but not cleanly. I don't know if I've ever seen as much exposed bone in a mainstream film before. As the shocked (and now sober) students drag their wounded up the beach Saving Private Ryan opening D-Day battle-style, a smorgasbord of gore effects plays out. It's such a strong scene that I found myself actually getting queasy by the end of it.
Of course the queasiness could have come from the terrible 3D conversion. Like 99% of 3D films, Piranha was shot like a normal 2D film and then unconverted to 3D in post production. Like every other 3D film handled this way, the results are disastrous. The special effects overall are fine, but everything that's supposed to be in another dimension has the black-border effect, where it's surrounded by a thick, black line. It's a distraction, but thankfully the great effects work makes up for the dismal added D.
Despite a lackluster hero (and his dumb as nuts third act save plan) and some plodding points (that really don't last that long), Piranha 3D is a gory, grizzly, nasty blast of end-of-summer fun. I hope Alexandre Aja's next film brings him back to serious horror (he directed the French modern-horror classic High Tension and the effective remake of The Hills Have Eyes), but his foray into campy, B-movie schlock territory is highly successful.