by R.L. Shaffer
There's about 15, maybe 20 minutes of Piranha 3D that's salvageable. The rest of the film is total junk, and not in an inventive, enjoyable, campy sort of way. Rather, this is garbage -- a direct-to-video mess that just happened to have a somewhat decent budget, and enough top class performers to garner a theatrical release -- in crummy up-converted 3D no less.
Now, obviously, I know that Piranha 3D was meant to be a bit tongue-and-cheek, as was the uneven, but entertaining original. That's clear right from the start, when Richard Dreyfuss, sporting his Matt Hooper costume from Jaws, is killed by our angry piranhas. But that's sort of the problem of the picture -- it was such an easy gag, and not a particularly funny one, either. I love Jaws. I take no joy in watching my favorite character from that film buy it at the hands of angry, poorly computer-generated fish in a sequence that barely makes a lick of sense. And I certainly don't like the idea of watching Richard Dreyfuss reprising the role just for a laugh. It's mean-spirited, crass and pointless.
Piranha 3D doesn't seem to know when to be funny, when to be scary or when to ignite its audience. It's a blind man playing darts. Sort of like Date Movie and those other uninspired spoofs. It takes ideas and tosses them into a meat grinder and hopes it can make its audience smile. But the gags themselves don't always make sense, and most aren't even remotely funny. The film just lumbers around looking for a gag, often getting sidetracked from the story at hand.
It's a shame director Alexandre Aja, who crafted the extraordinary effective remake of The Hills Have Eyes, was able to nab so many cameos and former A-list stars and character actors for the picture. I feel ashamed for these performers. A key example is the Christopher Lloyd cameo. Why the hell is this loveable actor here? Is this all he can get these days?
Same goes for Elisabeth Shue, who plays the town's local sheriff, Julie. She's tasked with taking care of her kids all while protecting a gaggle of drunken college students -- ready for a spring break full of orgies and date rape -- from blood-thirsty prehistoric piranhas. She's a paper-thin archetype, at best. And she's given nothing to make her interesting. Shue, an Academy Award-nominated actress, gives it her best, but ultimately it's all for naught. She's basically forced to slum it in a film she should have no business being in.
Even worse are the characters themselves. Virtually no one is likable. Our hero, Julie's son (Steven R. McQueen), is completely blank. The girl he's after (Jessica Szohr) seems more interested in material things, but she's never held accountable for her behavior. At the beginning of the film she breaks up with her boyfriend because he couldn't get her backstage passes -- not because he poured a blue slushi on the shirt of our hero (her friend) just for a laugh. How am I supposed to find anything likable about this girl? How am I supposed to feel fear when she's thrown into peril? It's clear director Alexandre Aja wants me to feel fear, but I don't -- not one bit. Jerry O'Connell plays as jerkish Girls Gone Wild type in the film, but he's so brash, over-the-top and mean-spirited, it's hard to watch him, and it's not even rewarding when he gets his "comeuppance." And, what's worse, we're meant to hate him for how he objectifies women, but the whole film is one giant ode to exploitation. Aren't we objectifying as well? By this logic, shouldn't we be eaten, too?
The only interesting character is Adam Scott's seismologist, Novak. He too is painfully cliche, but Scott nails the science geek-turned-action hero riff. He's immediately likable, funny and heroic. And he gets to take part in several of the film's best gags. Why the picture spends less than 15 minutes with this character is really quite frustrating. But the real damage of Piranha 3D, besides the unlikable characters, lazy story, and uneven tone that balances humor, exploitation and horror like a toddler wielding a plastic baseball bat in one hand and a broad sword in the other, is the film's gore and shockingly uneventful 3D.
It's no surprise (if you read my reviews at DVD Future or over at IGN) that I love exploitation pictures. I like excessive gore in movies. And I love excessive nudity. I love more films in Roger Corman's catalog than I'd like to admit (including the original film, the sequel and the first remake, made back in 1995 -- though admittedly the Piranha series is far from my favorite of his films). But Aja's Piranha takes it several steps too far. At times, the gore is funny. At times, it's brutally effective. But most of the time it's simply too much. The effects look surprisingly real, and once the mayhem gets into full swing, there's no stopping the parade of extreme gore -- the tone of the picture forever shifted.
Make no mistake, Piranha 3D is easily the single goriest, bloodiest film ever to receive the R-rating. It's brutally gory, and not in a fun Evil Dead/Dead Alive/Dawn of the Dead sort of way. This is stomach-churning, traumatic gore. There's eviscerated bodies, flesh chewed down to the bone, women split in half, faces torn off, detached limbs, detached halves, breasts and penises ripped apart, decapitations, explosions, eyeballs being torn out and so much more. It's all well done, but frankly, it's too much. The effects guys deserve credit for making most of it look surprisingly real, but at a serious cost. Some gore is meant to be off-screen.
And there isn't a catharsis here, even though it's clear that's what Aja was going for. Sure, we hate these horny college frat boys and sluts, but it's no fun watching them die, particularly because they get taken out in such gruesome, cruel ways. The film feels both misogynistic -- focusing on nasty female deaths more than male deaths -- and painfully immature, relishing in the violent deaths of the teens who probably picked on the writers and director when they were kids. Neither proves fun to watch, particularly one sequence in which a young girl's hair is caught in a propeller. Her face is torn from her body as the propeller breaks free.
Here's a bootleg version of the scene that leaked online a few months back:
This scene is meant to be funny, but it's not. It's horrific, brutally so, simply because her cries before her death were all too real -- drawing audiences out of the absurdity of the scene.
A real exploitation picture tends to have a few highlighted sequences of extreme gore, not 45 minutes of pure nihilistic bloodiness. Too much is either numbing, or just that -- too much. A half dozen sequences are a delight -- something you can share with your friends who haven't seen the film. But Piranha 3D is saturated with those types of scenes -- too many to even remember.
The 3D effects don't help matters much, either. Already, the film is too disorientating and clustered, but the 3D only serves to detract from the proceedings. The effects rarely work. The image looks hazy and clogged. And the RealD CG effects don't look photo-realistic in the slightest, especially compared to the 35MM photography. Ultimately, the gimmick of 3D is amusing and inspired (an ode to gimmicky 3D features like "Friday the 13th 3D), but the execution, like the rest of the film, is dull and wasted. At the end of the day, the single best 3D gag in the film is an amusingly poetic underwater ballet performed by two completely nude models (Kelly Brook and Riley Steele). It's funny, exploitative, tantalizing and oddly exhilarating.
I know some film goers are going to watch Piranha 3D and find a mecca of camp, gore, sex and nasty nihilism. The film is jam-packed with the stuff. But it isn't a good exploitation picture. It's a bottom feeder -- more obsessed with shocking than entertaining. A good exploitation picture is certainly shocking, but it has an interesting story and surprisingly fleshed-out characters in-between the gore, nudity and horror. Piranha 3D might think it's a funny ode to these types of B-grade exploitation pictures, but it's more aligned with C-grade DTV trash. It's unfunny, mean and brutally nihilistic to a fault.