Status: In theaters (opened 8/20/10)
Directed By: Alexandre Aja
Written By: Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg
Cinematographer: John R. Leonetti
Starring: Elisabeth Shue, Steven R. McQueen, Jerry O’Connell, Jessica Szohr, Kelly Brook, Riley Steele, Adam Scott, Ving Rhames
Piranha 3D is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a while, and if you believe me when I tell you that it’s intentionally so, you’ll take that as praise and a recommendation. It’s a gleefully vapid and exploitative horror film, relishing in all of the tropes of the genre with a tongue firmly planted in its cheek throughout.
Director Alexandre Aja knows what he’s doing. He’s clearly a fan of the original 1978 Piranha, yes, but also of Jaws, the inspiration for that film, this one, and countless others. As Spielberg did so well in 1975, Aja here gives the water a life of its own, making it a character unto itself. His cinematographer, John R. Leonetti, spends a lot of time framing shots from below, or placing the camera on the surface of the water, to give us a fish-eye’s view of the soon-to-be victims. There’s a suspense that’s built rather admirably, not so much because we’re tense and nervous about what’s going to happen, but because we’re looking forward to seeing how it does.
The script isn’t so much a rip-off of Jaws as it is a send-up, an homage. We get a small town that’s invaded annually by a large influx of tourists, but here, in true exploitation-movie fashion, it’s a spring break haven on a lake in Arizona, rather than a peaceful New England hamlet. The setting couldn’t be more perfect: Lake Victoria is over-populated with college kids looking to “go wild” (in more ways than one), and they provide a veritable douchebag buffet for the titular piranhas to feast upon.
The town is presided over by Sheriff Forester, played by my long-time love Elisabeth Shue (hey, I grew up with Adventures in Babysitting). When I first saw the trailers for Piranha 3D, I found myself wondering what the hell Elisabeth Shue was doing in this movie, but having seen it, I can give you the precise answer to that question: she’s kicking ass and taking names, that’s what. I mean, Ving Rhames, as her deputy, takes a backseat—that’s how bad-ass Lis is in this movie.
Of course, to get to that point, we have to have the semblance of a story, and what a great way to introduce an obviously ridiculous concept: Richard Dreyfuss, essentially in character as Hooper from Jaws, is the first of many victims of the prehistoric piranhas that are freed from the lake’s depths by an untimely earthquake. Aja is remarkably patient with his first act, taking the time to give us some exposition that isn’t really needed in this kind of movie except to make us impatient for the inevitable—which is to say, he builds tension by means of story, something I certainly wasn’t expecting. We meet the bad-ass female sheriff and her son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen). He’s hired by the mogul of a thinly-veiled “Girls Gone Wild” surrogate named Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) to play tour guide on the lake while the “Wild Wild Girls” do their thing. Derrick has come prepared: the stars of his latest video are played by porn star Riley Steele and British model (and current Playboy cover girl) Kelly Brook. When they “go wild,” it gave me a new appreciation of the current 3D fad.
It should go without saying that Piranha 3D is a completely ridiculous movie, but what makes it so enjoyable is that it knows it. Aja has a remarkable knack for balancing the tension/startle/scare/horrify cycle that’s common in slasher-style movies like this with not only a winking knowledge that the whole thing is ludicrous, but also a reverential appreciation of his movie’s more serious predecessors. There’s a great bit where we get the piranhas’ viewpoint from below the surface of the water as they seemingly take their time selecting their victims out of hundreds of possibilities, and then we focus on a girl’s ass hanging through the center of an inner-tube; the results are predictably bloody and comedic at the same time. Or consider the film’s climax, which takes the Jaws formula and makes it its own: the heroes’ boat, firmly established as a safe harbor, springs a leak, letting the water—which we’re well-trained to identify as dangerous—in, and bringing the piranhas with it. Young Jake doesn’t have a harpoon gun, but his situation feels pretty close to that of Quint and Brody, as does his eventual solution. There are surprisingly high-brow homages like this throughout, scenes that Piranha 3D makes its own while demonstrating that it knows exactly where they come from. Of course, then on the other side of the spectrum there’s some telling breast implants that we see floating in the lake, and a dismembered, uh, member, too—I don’t think anybody would ever accuse this movie of taking itself too seriously.
Piranha 3D, as the name clearly implies, is made to be seen in 3D, and that only adds to the fun. Aside from the previously-mentioned examples of how well gratuitous female nudity lends itself to the technology, Aja also indulges in some to-be-expected instances of what I think of as the old-school kind of gimmicky 3D. Ving Rhames rips the motor off of a boat and aims it at the camera, and woah the propellers are spinning right in your face! Piranhas snap their jaws into the audience, body parts fly out of the screen, and—you get the idea. A good time is had all around.
The cast is surprisingly well-rounded, and with the exception of the child actors who play Jake’s younger siblings, it’s across-the-board capable. Jerry O’Connell in particular really breathes life into the film with his over-the-top sleaze-ball character, and Adam Scott likewise seems to be having a lot of fun playing the gentle-yet-masculine savior who comes to the rescue. I also enjoyed Jessica Szohr as Jake’s love interest-slash-damsel in distress; she provides the stereotypical nice-pretty-girl counterpoint to the impossibly hot “Wild Wild Girls.” Christopher Lloyd even turns up as a sort of mad marine biologist, and Eli Roth provides his services as an appropriately over-the-top wet t-shirt contest host. I realize it’s probably not for everybody, but Piranha 3D had me wearing a shit-eating grin for 90 minutes straight, and really, if you know that what you’re eating is mostly shit, but it tastes good nonetheless, you might as well allow yourself to enjoy it, right?