Piranah 3D horror film review
Since Alexandre Aja and company could not be bothered to craft a coherent movie, I see no reason I should go to the trouble of writing a coherent review; instead, I will follow their lead and just throw together a series of random thoughts “inspired” by this cinematic chum-bucket.
The first is that, because PIRANHA 3D unabashedly embraces exploitation, I would like to cut it some slack; criticizing gratuitous gore and second-rate scripting is really besides the point. The problem is that PIRANHA 3D isn’t even good exploitation; it’s flat-out schlock of the laziest kind. Sure, it’s loaded with buckets full of gore, but you can see better exploitation in a “respectable” Steven Spielberg film (I’m thinking of the female assassin in MUNICH who is executed with a bullet between her naked breasts – you won’t see anything that powerfully sleazy in PIRANHA 3D).
Apparently, the script was written as a comedy, and Aja thought he could bring the tension of a serious movie. Guess what? The writers forgot the comedy, and the director forgot the tension! For the most part, PIRANHA 3D is neither-nor rather than either-or: not scary and not funny. It is also seldom sexy despite a visual aesthetic is less exploitation horror than “Girls Gone Wild” – it looks good in the trailer but wears thin awfully fast in a feature-length film.
There is very little plot – which is to be expected from this kind of thing – and the pacing glacial – which is really not to be expected from this kind of thing. If you’re going to make a film that is just an excuse to intercut T-&-A and gore, you might want to c0me up with some memorable set-pieces and string them together in a way that doesn’t lull us to sleep. Instead, the big moments tend toward the lame.
On the T-&A side, there is a underwater ballet (complete with classical-sounding music) that is supposed to be a hoot because it features two naked chicks. The CGI origins are so obvious – not to mention the impossibly long time without breathing – that you expect a cutaway revealing that we are watching a video game. However, PIRANHA 3D wants us to accept the action as real. (Perhaps I missed the joke – was I supposed to laugh at how bad the scene is?)
On the suspense side, there is a lengthy scene with some stranded characters trying to get off a sinking boat by climbing a rope suspended over the water. All I will say here is that the scene was done much better in Greg McLean’s ROGUE (2007), which you should all run out and rent instead of buying a ticket to this this frightless flotsam.
PIRANHA 3D is seldom enjoyable in an “it’s only a movie” kind of way. Yes, it’s mildly amusing that Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper in JAWS) shows up in the first scene, and it’s way cool that Eli Roth is on-screen just so he can have his head splattered in a boating accident. But that’s about it for good in-jokes.
There are occasional moments when PIRANHA 3D threatens to come to life. When the fish hits the pan during the climactic assault on resort, Adam Scott, as a vaguely defined scientist guy named Novak, inexplicably morphs into action-her0 mode just because that would be cool, but the film quickly cuts away to other mayhem before taking this idea anywhere interesting. The same happens when Ving Rhames, as a Sheriff’s deputy, takes an outboard motor in hand, using it as a weapon to hold off the piranha while potential victims retreat: what should have been a great melodramatic moment, along the lines of Hanzo’s sword fight in PREDATORS, yields a few 3-D effects as fish parts go flying – and then cuts away before it reaches the climax.
Perhaps I should mention that having the sheriffs blast the piranhas with shotguns is really stupid – almost as stupid as having the lead sheriff (Elisabeth Shue) taser one. The script misses a really good opportunity for a clever seen here: because of the different refraction of light in water versus air, shooting at where a fish appears to be underwater would inevitable send the buckshot or taser dark a few inches away from the actual target. Now that would have been a great scene: the bull’s eye right on target, followed by the blast – only to reveal, after the smoke cleared, the unharmed piranha zeroing in for the attack.
Exploitation films can be a thrill because they feel free to avoid subtlety, etching characters in ways that make you either (a) really glad or (b) really sad to see them devoured by the monster du jour. PIRANHA 3D fails in this elemental test. Just about everyone is a mildly annoying jerk who doesn’t make you feel strongly one way or the other whether or not he/she survives.
The one exception is bungled. Some scumbag asshole begins running over people in his boat, trying to save himself. He’s obviously being set up to die a well-deserved death, but all we see is the boat turning over. All that set up for no payoff? Right there, Aja should have his exploitation credentials revoked, and his booster at the gore-hound websites should hang their collective head in disgrace.
The gore effects are well done technically, but since the whole film feels like an adolescent boy’s sick fantasy (“Oh boy, the piranha are gonna bite that bikini-clad girl’s butt!”), the gore seldom achieves the sick level of disgust that was apparently intended. The one exception is the para-sailing woman whose dead, legless body is seen briefly suspended in the sky after a rapid-fire attack by the killer fish.
Here again, PIRANHA 3D bungles its own best moments: there are no repercussions from this scene, which should have sent the woman’s crazed friends running to the authorities. Even worse, our lead characters have been watching the woman – through a video camera no less – but through some editorial fudging, we’re supposed to assume they were distracted at the key moment; otherwise, they would hardly hang around to become piranha chow in the third act.
And while we’re on the topic of editorial malfeasance: the first time we see a victim pulled from the water with feet/legs/lower abdomen missing, it is effective; but cutting to the same shock effect two, three, or four more times in later scenes only bores us with the repetition.
The prehistoric piranhas are nicely designed, but the computer graphics are not terribly impressive. Real water is murky, with refracting light – perfect for moody menace, with vaguely defined shapes lurking at the periphery of vision. CGI renders all this in detail that is unbelievably clear, particularly an underground lake that is visualized as the earth-bound underwater equivalent of the egg chamber in ALIEN: it looks cool, but the visual effects edge the film into fantasy, away from horror.
The 3-D makes matters worse, adding to the unreality of the fish effects. Although designed as a 3-D film, PIRANHA was shot flat and converted in the post-production. The result is not as bad as the awful job done on THE LAST AIRBENDER, but there are still tell-tale signs: although separated into foreground, mid-ground, and background, objects tend to look flat, especially when filmed through telescopic lenses. I do have to give Aja credit for the scene wherein the leading lady pukes into our faces – a deliberately cheesy moment almost (albeit not quite) worthy of FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (which still stands as the all-time champ of 3-D excess).
Unfortunately, good gimmicky moments like these are the exception. The norm is mis-matched depth, such as an awkward moment when Jake Forester (Steven R. McQueen) and Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) are supposed to be staring eye-to-eye, and instead it looks as though they are misaligned by about a foot. (By the way, although O’Connell clearly enjoys playing a sleazy “Girls Gone Wild” director, his character is not nearly as much fun as a very similar one seen in 2006’s HATCHET).
The script evinces occasional attempts to thwart expectations. For example, the usual dichotomy between the slut and the nice girl is blurred, making us a little less certain which will be the “final girl,” but in the end the obvious choice survives (the film also contrives to turn her into a damsel in distress, as if punishing her for her brief flirtation with going “wild”). But then Aja is all about being “unpredictable” in a very predictable way. As in THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006) and MIRRORS (2008), the obligatory “happy ending” is mere prologue for the allegedly unexpected “twist” – which arrives on schedule with clockwork precision. If the goal is truly to be unpredictable, a better strategy at this point would be to do something that actually works on conventional terms.
Despite the title, PIRANHA 3D contains no credit to the 1978 PIRANHA, except for thank you to Joe Dante, who directed the original. It’s just as well. Except for the images of piranhas attacking a resort, and an underwater rescue with the hero being pulled by a boat tow line, PIRANHA 3D has little in common with the 1978 Roger Corman production, which is one of the best exploitation-horror films ever made. In fact – and much to its detriment – PIRANHA 3D bears far more resemblance to Corman’s dreary follow-up, UP FROM THE DEPTHS (1979).
P.S. – I just want to add that the gratuitous and completely unexplained shot of a diver disappearing beneath the surface of the water, which then begins to churn red with blood, looks like a teaser trailer that was inserted randomly into the film’s first half because someone in the editing room realized nothing much was happening in the film.
PIRANHA 3D (August 20, 2010, Dimension Films). Directed by Alexandre Aja. Written by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg. Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Steven R. McQueen, Jessica Szohr, Ving Rhames, Jerry O’Connell, Kelly Brook, Riley Steele, Adam Scott, Dina Meyer, Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Lloyd, Eli Roth