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Entries in Piranha 3D [2010] (1)

Sunday
Aug222010

Piranha 3D (2010)

When Beavers Attack

Piranha 3D is a really weird, really frustrating movie.  On the one hand, I’m recommending it for horror fans that—like me—have been craving a return to the practical gore effects of decades past.  On the other hand, I hope it tanks (pun intended), so that we, as a horror-loving audience, can finally give director Alexandre Aja the collective intervention he so desperately needs.

Let’s back up.

In 2003, I saw the French thriller High Tension in a movie theatre.  It came and went without much notice, except among genre fans who marveled at the out-of-control violence and raw, emotional intensity of the lead actresses’ performances.  High Tension is a girls-on-the-run-from-a-maniac picture that plops the audience into several situations that blend voyeurism and claustrophobia, in a story that is note-perfect up until the Big Twist Ending—which, depending on who you are and how much you know about the movie going in, is either completely okay or an absolute deal-breaker.  Either way, the film put writer/director Aja on the map.  Hell, in terms of the dead-at-the-time horror landscape, he was the map; and the relative few people who caught his “American” debut expected him to become the next great gore-teur.

Fortunately for Aja, he drew the attention of the major studios.  Unfortunately for his fans, this attention translated into his directing a remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes—a brutal but utterly generic brand-name cash-in.  Two years after that, he returned with Mirrors, the Kiefer Sutherland vehicle that turned out to be little more than Jack Bauer vs. The Haunted Department Store.  The two things these misfires had in common were lots of computer-generated gore and forgettable, clichéd stories.  The stamp, the spark, of High Tension had been swallowed by Hollywood and regurgitated as such by-the-numbers pabulum that there was no sign of the director who’d first earned acclaim.

Which is why when I heard that Aja’s next project was a 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha, the only things that could lift my sunken heart were my shrugging shoulders.

I have to admit, though, that Piranha 3D is the best Alexandre Aja film since High Tension, and I’m giving it a qualified recommendation.  So qualified, in fact, that this positive spin probably only applies to a few hundred people out of the several million that the studio is desperately hoping will turn out for this movie.

Actually, Piranha 3D isn’t really a movie.  It’s a collection of monster/disaster movie elements held together with lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of gratuitous nude scenes.  While that may sound appealing to pre-teen boys (especially the fully nude underwater lesbian make-out scene—in 3D!), it’s extremely frustrating for moviegoers who are used to things like character and plot development.

The film opens with Richard Dreyfuss (!) being sucked into a whirlpool while fishing on a lake; the whirlpool is caused by an underwater earthquake that unleashes thousands of prehistoric piranhas, who utterly devour the star of Mr. Holland’s Opus (and, oh, yeah, Jaws).  The scene is quick, poorly edited and murky, and so obviously shot against a green screen that I wondered if a compositor on SyFy had finally caught a big break.

The film cuts to the requisite Sleepy Beach Community that’s on the Verge of a Terrible Awakening, where we meet tough-mom sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) and her teenage son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen).  Jake agrees to babysit his younger brother and sister, but sneaks off to act as a tour guide for Derrick (Jerry O’Connell), the sleazy producer of the reality porn series, Wild Wild Girls.  Along for the ride is Jake’s would-be girlfriend, Kelly (Jessica Szohr), and the aforementioned aquatic nymphettes, played by Kelly Brook and real-life adult entertainer Riley SteelePiranha 3D alternates between Derrick’s party boat and a beach-front rave that Sheriff Forester must keep under control.

There’s some really interesting stuff going on in the early part of the film, where a group of geologists discovers the piranhas’ nest hundreds of feet below what they thought was the lakebed.  Sure, it’s a rip-off of the derelict ship scene in Alien, but the look of the piranha eggs, and the way they grow on bubbly stalks that jut up from the rock floor is eerily cool; and I must admit that the killer fish attack in this scene happened in a way I wasn’t quite expecting.

Additionally, Christopher Lloyd pops up as a crazy old scientist who explains what’s going on—to both Sheriff Forester and her new geologist buddy, Novak (Adam Scott), as well as to the audience.  It was a real treat to see Lloyd and Shue together again for the first time since the Back to the Future sequels—but I digress.

Of course, these moments of passable science fiction are rare; punctuated as they are by continuous cuts back to body shots and sunbathing on the party boat or wet t-shirt contests at the Spring break bash.  By the time the major fish attack came around, I was so sick of nude parasailing and soft-core make-out sessions that I could barely stay awake.  But the attack did come around, and it is the only reason I’m recommending this movie as a big-screen experience.

Gore effects legends Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger have outdone themselves with the work they put into Piranha 3D.  Their commitment to creating everything from minor bite wounds to three-quarters-mauled corpses—along with Alexandre Aja’s ability to direct hundreds of extras in the best extended scene of mass panic, death and chaos since Carrie—is what makes this film a true feat of technical mastery.  Because the movie follows the Jaws template, I figured there would be a small group attack, followed by another, and capped off with a big, bloody climax.  Instead, we’re treated to one twenty-or-so-minute feeding frenzy.

Every detail is perfectly, gruesomely realized.  And I’m not talking about body parts floating in the water; I’m talking about a cowardly douchebag commandeering a motorboat and steering it into a crowd of people, crunching and grinding them up as he goes.  He only stops when a girl gets her hair caught in the propeller; after several desperate pulls on the starter, he gets the motor going again, which strips the girl’s face and scalp clean off—and, damn, did it look real!

The piranhas themselves are nasty little bastards; I liked their look and their viciousness, but they were completely computer-generated.  I love that the filmmakers trusted the old-school effects guys enough to let them loose on some practical carnage; it’s the harmony of the physical and the digital that makes movie magic, that allows the audience to suspend its disbelief—and I would love to see more of it.

I wouldn’t love to see more of Piranha, though, even though the door is left so wide open for a sequel that the film stops, literally, in the middle of the story.  At a run-time of barely 80 minutes, the narrative is cut short at the exact spot where the climax should be—meaning that the traditional false climax is the climax, and we’re just supposed to accept the fact that a major story point is introduced about fifteen seconds before the end credits role.

Effectively, watching Piranha 3D is like catching an amazing TV special on classic horror makeup that’s sandwiched between a bad CW rerun and a Girls Gone Wild infomercial.  The movie isn’t campy enough to be a cheesy romp, and it’s not serious enough, or not consistently serious, to qualify as a true horror film.  It’s trapped in that hideous dead zone of creative indecision that has come to be Alexandre Aja’s calling card.  The tag-line for this thing is “3D Shows its Teeth”.  If only.

If only.

Note:  I watched the 3D version of this movie, glasses and all, because my friend, Chad, and I couldn’t figure out how to buy tickets for the 2D showing at our theatre’s ticket kiosk.  I’m not even sure there was a 2D version.  But I’m glad I saw Piranha 3D as it was meant to be seen.  Not for the boobs or disturbingly pronounced shaved vaginas, but for the special moments that only 3D can capture; like a girl vomiting beer foam right into my face, or—and this is something I’ll never forget—two piranhas wrestling over a massive, floating, severed penis, and that penis being regurgitated in pink, beefy chunks flying at my head.  Oh, how I adore art!