During an extended (and I mean extended) underwater nude semi-lesbian romp between Kelly Brook and Riley Steele, I thought to myself ‘Piranha 3D could be the finest film of our time.’
If that’s not the case it certainly comes close; director Alexandre Aja has crafted (yes, crafted!) a non-stop buzz machine that runs on boobs and blood, offering everything you’d ever want to see in a movie whose logline is ‘Thousands of prehistoric piranha attack Spring Breakers.’ A ridiculous, over the top, gore splattered blast, Piranha 3D is like the cinematic equivalent of a Red Bull – way too high in sugar, but it will pump you up after a fairly sleepy summer at the movies.
Running only 82 minutes (signs of extreme trimming abound – I imagine there’s a longer cut with more characters), Piranha 3D is all about forward momentum. The problem with schlock films is that they often get bogged down in bullshit halfway through; budgets are rarely high enough to keep the mayhem going for an entire running time, and so we end up with tired subplots or awkward attempts at relevance, meaning or drama. Piranha 3D has none of that; as silly as the proceedings are, Aja is a masterful storyteller, with a great grasp on pacing and mood. He’s used those skills to freak us out in the past in High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, and this time he brings them to bear on delightful splatstick.
Aja knows how to keep the story moving forward while not boring us, and it’s not just by flashing tits every few minutes (although that certainly helps). His secret weapon is a fairly amazing cast that understands the tone, and then never plays to it. Nobody in Piranha 3D is camping it up, but they have their performances finely tuned for the tone. The biggest surprise in the film is probably Adam Scott; the comedic character actor doesn’t get any actually funny lines, but he knows how to make his lines funny. Better than that, he’s more than capable as an action star, and it’s kind of mind-blowing watching him jump on a jet ski, pump a shotgun and blast piranha out of the water. Scott’s the perfect guy to play this scene, which is delicately balanced between awesome and ridiculous.
While the casting of Richard Dreyfuss in a cameo will likely be the most buzzed-about thing in the movie (this film makes the ultimate Jaws homage), I think the MVP supporting player must be Christopher Lloyd. My half-full press screening crowd applauded wildly as Lloyd, playing a crazy-eyed fish store owner, delivered a mouthful of exposition in a way that only Lloyd could. Aja is brilliant not just for casting Lloyd, whose presence enlivens anything, but for understanding that you need a guy like him to give us the ‘scientific backstory’ that would otherwise be a chore to sit through. It’s a great example of how Aja truly gets what he’s doing here.
Jerry O’Connell is also sort of amazing, playing a thinly veiled take on Girls Gone Wild douchebag Joe Francis. In grand exploitation film fashion this character lets the audience have their cake and eat it too – his presence at Spring Break means that there will be plenty of gratuitous and lingering nudity, but he also gets a brutal and prolonged death that makes us feel good. O’Connell lets loose in the role, cherishing every moment he gets to play a coked out creep, and being very, very convincing while he’s at it. It’s a long way from Stand By Me, and I loved it. Elizabeth Shue, meanwhile, has the exact opposite sort of role. She plays the tough as nails local sheriff, already beleaguered by the army of teens invading her town, who has to deal with not just killer fish but her own children stranded out in the lake. Shue takes to the badass mama role perfectly, and she’s more than a little hot while doing it. There’s definitely a sexier Sarah Connor vibe going on from her. And since she’s playing everything incredibly straight faced – including shooting a taser at piranha – she makes what’s happening around her much crazier and more fun.
The film’s biggest weaknesses are all technical. The 3D, frankly, is junk. Shot in 2D and post-converted, Piranha 3D proves that even when you’re shooting flat for stereo, the conversion process doesn’t work so well. There are weird depth issues, layers of people and things that feel off and wrong, and sometimes the 3D flat out doesn’t work. A scene where a girl barfs directly on the lens should be the 3D highlight of the decade; instead it’s just amusing. I’m all for using 3D in a gimmicky way as Aja has done here – there’s a severed penis in 3D, for the love of God – but that gimmick only works when the 3D is good, and I’m more convinced than ever that the post-conversion technology is simply not up to snuff.
The other problem is the shoddy CGI. Sometimes it’s charming – the cartoony looking fish worked for me – but during underwater attack scenes it was often terrible and impossible to understand. Luckily the underwater CG attacks are kept to a minimum, and we actually don’t get to see the piranha all that often, with Aja instead opting to linger on the aftermath. And what an aftermath! People’s limbs are stripped to the bone, folks are cut in half, guts are strewn about the ocean, heads are smashed to bits, a woman’s face is pulled off after her hair gets caught in a propeller, and many more horrific depravities are visited upon the tight, tanned and toned bodies of Spring Breakers. The film’s main set piece, when the fish come after the hordes of kids, is legendary in its bloodiness and craziness. The film builds to this point – kills come at a regular pace – but for almost ten minutes Aja just unleashes gallons of grue on screen, orchestrating a massacre that will live in ‘Best Of’ lists for years to come. What’s great about having a director like Aja on this film is that the massacre works as cinema – it’s not just a series of interconnected moments but a paced and thought out sequence that builds and crescendos. Aja knows how to make movies.
It should be obvious if this is a movie for you. Insane, over the top, but always straight-faced, Piranha 3D ups the ante on gore and nudity in an R rated film. I was actually shocked that the cut I saw was approved by the MPAA – I am certain I saw Riley Steele’s vagina, and I know that I later saw her breast implants floating to the surface after a piranha attack. Piranha 3D has no pretensions; Aja understands what the title demands, and he understands what a remake of a Jaws rip-off should be trying to do. And that’s having fun, grossing us out, and showing us plenty of skin. As the summer comes to an end we’re lucky enough to be treated to one of the ultimate summer movies ever made.
8.5 out of 10