Rogue Pictures releases this film from partner Relativity Media, Zed Filmworks, FilmNation Entertainment, and A Bigger Boat productions. After a mother and daughter move next door to a house where a young girl killed her parents, the daughter befriends the surviving son; unfortunately, it turns out that the horror next door is far from over.
Mark Tonderai directed, from a script by David Loucka, based on a story by Jonathan Mostow. With Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue, Max Thieriot, Nolan Gerard Funk, Gil Bellows, Krista Bridges, Allie MacDonald, James Thomas.
Release date: September 21, 2012.
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 dujour. 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
Sadly, this is one of Paul Verhoeven’s directorial mistakes. It begins with an interesting premise (how does invisibility—and with it, the ability to get away with anything) warp the moral sensibility? Unfortunately, the screenplay confines the action mostly to an isolated research facility and uses the idea only as an excuse for gratuitous special effects and violence. This might have been acceptable (if not admirable) had the director delivered an exciting action movie; unfortunately, HOLLOW MAN falls flat on its blank face. There is lots of stumbling about (and screaming and shouting and bloodletting), but the film never works up a visible head of steam.
Kevin Bacon stars as the titular scientist whose secret government experiments render him invisible. The opening act effectively establishes the arrogance of the character, who also displays a penchant for voyeurism; unfortunately, the character’s moral deterioration (once invisibility allows his latent anti-social tendencies to surface) takes a back seat to the invisibility scenes. The result is an old-fashioned “mad science” story about somebody who comes to a bad end because his experiments went too far.
The actors end up trapped in a hopeless scenario. Bacon does a good job (even limited mostly to his voice), first at establishing the character and then at creating fear, but even so, he can’t keep the character believable while the script is bouncing around from special effect to special effect. Elizabeth Shue and the rest of the cast are Hollywood versions of scientists, young and beautiful, but they try awfully hard before the script finally defeats them. By the end, they’re not better off than the cast of a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, just waiting around to be impaled or bludgeoned in the bloodiest manner that the director can imagine.
There have been many invisible man movies featuring amazing special effects (including MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, the previous high-water mark for visuals of this kind), but the computer-generated imgery in HOLLOW MAN outdoes them all. Especially impressive is the manner in which the presence of Bacon’s character is always maintained, whether he is visible or not. Bacon was filmed on set with his fellow actors, wearing green make-up and skin-tight costume, which allowed him to be digitally removed in post-production. This creates some genuinely eerie scenes of his invisible form outlined in smoke or silhouetted like an air bubble in a swimming pool, with the actor’s expressions clearly visible.
However, this technical tour-de-force fails to keep the character center stage the way he should be if the film is to work as anything more than a special effects showcase. Instead, the third act degrades into dumb action when the Hollow Man decides to kill his research team to keep his invisibility a secret. The film becomes into a slasher-thriller in a lab facility, while the endangered characters mutate from scientists into moronic victims or tough-talking heroes (“We’re going to put him down,” Elisabeth Shue growls, channeling Nick Nolte and/or Sylvester Stallone). Things turn ridiculous (one victim is casually dismissed with an off-hand “he’s dead” before he’s barely gasped his last breath). Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Rasputin, the villain gets killed—and killed again—but keeps coming back—because that’s what’s supposed to happen in this kind of movie, and who cares whether it makes any sense?
Paul Verhoeven has made great films like THE FOURTH MAN, ROBOCOP, and STARSHIP TROOPERS; however, even some of his box office successes (TOTAL RECALL, BASIC INSTINCT) show signs of diminished intelligence, and he is cluelessly completely capable of churning out junk like SHOW GIRLS (apparently without any concept of how ridiculous the film is. His stock in trade seems to be pulverizing visceral impact (dumping a crook in toxic waste, dismembering a starship trooper in the jaws of an alien bug). When working from a solid script, he can create a film with jolts and shocks that have a genuinely disturbing edge; when working from a lame scenario, Verhoeven just plows ahead indifferently, and you’re left with an ugly mess. HOLLOW MAN definitely falls into the later category. That’s too bad, because it should have been so much more.
THE TURNING POINT
The film contains a demarcation point that establishes where the story starts to go downhill (although in retrospect the hints were there all along). After that, there’s nothing to do but sit back and watch the crash-and-burn as the movies degenerates into nonsense that elicits laughter rather than screams.
Midway through the story, the Hollow Man escapes from his lab for a night out. He sees a beautiful woman (Rhona Mitra) undressing in the apartment across from. Whereas his visible self had to wallow in sexual frustration earlier in the film, now that he’s invisible he can act on his urges, sneaking undetected into her room. The scene is Verhoeven at his sleaziest and most effective, provoking a complex series of reactions: you know Bacon’s scientist shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing, but you want him to proceed so you can see what happens; you feel guilty for watching but you don’t want it to stop; you hope for hint of characterization to be bestowed upon the woman—anything that will make her something more than just a sex object—but you know that would take the film into the realm of genuine suspense and ruin the vicarious thrill of the male adolescent fantasy being played out. The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horrorpraises director Mario Bava for turning the masked killer in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE into a “faceless representative of the male spectator as he stalks” and kills a series of helpless women, with “no comforting resistance for projective identification…” Verhoeven takes this approach a quantum leap higher; with his unseen stalker literally invisible, there is no on-screen menace left to see, leaving only viewers in the audience. If the point is to show how nearly irresistible the temptation would be, the scene succeeds—up to the moment when the camera swoops in on the screaming woman.
After that, the film cuts away, and we never find out what happened next. There is a line in which the Hollow Man admits to “scaring” the unfortunate woman, but we have no reason to believe that’s all he did. It’s nice not to have to sit through what the film seemed to be building up to (a brutal sexual assault, maybe even murder), but why waste five minutes on a set-up if you’re not going to deliver the punch line? (At the time of the theatrical release, those involved in making the film insisted that no “invisible rape” scene had been shot; according to the Internet Movie Database, a longer version was tested for audiences, who objected that it showed the Hollow Man turning too evil, too quickly.)
This omission hurts the film because it is the first sign of the Hollow Man emerging madness—his initial step from being an anal retentive control freak to being a monster willing and even eager to throw away not only his career but his previous identity in order to act on his selfish impulses. The audience should know (if not see) how far he goes at this point, because it sets up later events. Hiding the fate of the woman clouds Bacon’s character from us. Having lost track of his descent, we are no longer watching a story about a man slowly losing his soul; we’re simply in for a long, bumpy special effects ride.
(NOTE: This footage is restored in the “Director’s Cut DVD.”)
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR PAUL VERHOEVEN
One thing you would never call Paul Verhoeven as a director is “subtle.” Even his early European films like THE FOURTH MAN contained their share of graphic imagery gouged eyeballs, to site one example) meant to shock you out of the complacency often produced by high-tone art house offerings. After moving to American, he made numerous films loaded with violence (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), sex (SHOWGIRLS), or both (BASIC INSTINCT). Consequently, he has had his share of run-ins with the MPAA (except for SHOWGIRLS, which went out with an NC-17, all his English language films have been recut to get an R-rating), and he is no stranger to controversy. His 2000 film, HOLLOW MAN, takes the traditional invisible man concept and gives it a modern interpretation, emphasizing the potential for voyeurism and sexual stalking. In it, Kevin Bacon plays a scientist who manages to render himself invisible. Isolated from his colleagues by his condition, he soon finds himself unable to resist the temptations it provides. Advance word from people who read early drafts of the script, coupled with comments from Bacon himself (who calls his character, half jokingly, “Horny Man”) led some to wonder whether the film would be an over-the-top exercise in misogyny, yet the film sailed through the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board with R. Although we now know that the Rhona Mitra scene was trimmed, at the time of the film’s release, Verhoeven claimed there had been no recutting in order to appease the ratings board. “No,” he said. “I got a straight R. I gave the movie to the MPAA and got an R. It’s the first time in my life. All my movies have been called X or NC-17. It was X when I started here: FLESH AND BLOOD, ROBOCOP, and TOTAL RECALL all got an X. Then BASIC INSTINCT, SHOWGIRLS, and STARSHIP TROOPERS got NC-17. It’s still an R; it’s not a PG-13, and I couldn’t make it a PG-13. The muscular body, and the way he is sometimes expressed in certain forms, is too scary for a PG-13. He is sometimes seen in layered form, and certainly during the transformation he is mostly of course layered, in between. Later, he is seen in layered forms or muscular form. So it’s disturbing.
Verhoeven explained the “casting” of composer Jerry Goldsmith (instead of usual musical collaborator Basil Pouledouris):
“First of all, I think he’s great. Somehow I felt it was a bit more…there’s a lot of this sliding scale things where the atmosphere is slowly changing. I felt it’s what Jerry can do in the most beautiful way because he can nuance the orchestra so that little instrumentations give just a touch of change. Basil, I feel, is much more for broad brushstrokes, like when he writes for ROBOCOP or STARSHIP TROOPERS. Broad strokes, a bit orchestra, a lot of horns and trumpets and all that stuff. I think his best scores, which he did for CONAN and ROBOCOP, have that kind of visceral quality. I felt that this was more BASIC INSTINCT-oriented, because it’s a really slow buildup, from scientific work that has a fantasy quality to it, to more and more fear that it might be evil and then knowledge that it is going to be evil. So it felt that way.
“In fact, I have always been working with two d.p.’s. Joss Vacano and Jan DeBont. Jan DeBont is not available anymore, unfortunately, because I have a feeling I can express myself much better to the left than to the right, because Jan would be better at one way of shooting and Joss would be the other way of shooting, so I was able to use Jan for one kind of movie and Joss for another kind of movie. I’m really looking for another d.p, next to Joss, that can do the other kind of thing, someone that is more Jan-oriented. Jan is more to the red, and Josh is more to the blue. Josh is much colder; Jan is much warmer. That works for certain movies in a good way and sometimes in a bad way; then you want to change.With Jerry, it’s the same way. Jerry would be perfect for this, and Basil would be perfect for that.” HOLLOW MAN (August 4, 2000). Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Andrew W. Marlowe, story by Marlowe and Gary Scott Thompson. Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, William Devane, Rhona Mitra. Original Copyright 2001 by Steve Biodrowski; revised in 2007