Generally speaking, audiences reap little to no benefits from lowered expectations that develop as an inevitable defense mechanism against the overpriced crap shoveled into movie theaters. Sure, there’s the occasional pleasant surprise, but filmmakers must intuitively sense that audiences will continue to tolerate a nearly infinite supply of shitty films (so long as the trailer looks halfway decent and gives away the best moments of the entire movie in question). In the most bizarre cases, however, the rarest of cinematic events — the movie that is far more satisfying than it ever had any right to be — occurs. Such is the case with Piranha 3D, with director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes) stepping in to helm a faithful yet superior remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 original. Screenwriters Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg rework the original premise with a needless (although not entirely unwelcome) scientific backstory, which is damn near total bullshit but plays a lot better than Dante’s mutated, chomping escapees swimming downstream like a load of errant, mechanized sperm. In addition to losing that unwelcome imagery, the story peppers itself accordingly with wry banter and effective tension-building devices until the second act, during which the hysteria suddenly kicks into high gear. It also helps immensely that the remake benefits from some successful stunt casting — Elizabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, and Richard Dreyfuss — all recruited for a sense of nostalgia, which also reminds us of a time when 3D movies were about sheer fun rather than representative of an extra surcharge upon far too many kiddie flicks (can’t buy just one ticket) and opportunistic piles of Shyamalan-infested crap.
It makes one long for a more innocent time, no?
Ergo, this movie takes on the task of painting the backwater town of Lake Victoria in the brightest of reds. At the beginning of Piranha 3D, an intermittently grumbling and singing fisherman (Dreyfuss) reprises his Jaws character for what is essentially a pre-credits cameo. We soon witness the seismic event that opens an underground cavern beneath Lake Victoria and unleashes thousands of massive prehistoric piranha just in time for Spring Break. When Sheriff Julie Forester (Shue) and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) discover the first body, they’re inclined to shut down the lake, but it’s too late for such preemptive measures. The college crowd has already arrived, and the normally sleepy town has begun its annual transformation into a massive fraternity house. Ordinarily, this would just be business as usual for Forester and her handful of loyal deputies, but now it’s not merely a matter of keeping college kids from drinking themselves to death. Also, as a single mother, Forrester is somewhat preoccupied with a precarious childcare situation involving whether or not her teenaged son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), will keep his promise to care for two elementary-aged siblings during her busiest week of the year. The script does a nice job of setting up this emotional investment without dwelling upon it to the point of audience boredom, but it’s fairly obvious that there shall be a few Adventures In Babysitting (sorry, it practically wrote itself) at work.
Soon enough, Jake finds himself ensnared by the opportunity to film boobies for the reprehensible Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell, nailing the persona perfectly), a skin-flick auteur loosely based upon Joe Francis of “Girls Gone Wild” dubious fame. Derrick also takes a liking to Jake’s high-school-aged crush, Kelly (Jessica Szohr), so Jake finds himself running serious interference, but any attempt at this side plot fizzles next to O’Connell’s amplified display of both sliminess and charisma that forms the essence of an entirely deplorable human being. For obvious reasons, to describe this performance as “chewing the scenery” would be slightly erroneous in this instance; suffice to say that O’Connell succeeds at infusing humor into each act of the movie, which certainly helps keep the lighthearted vibe going well past the movie’s main massacre. For those not already aware of Aja’s passion for inventive kills, he certainly does not disappoint in that department. Nor does he display any frugality where naked 3D boobies are concerned; of particular note are Derrick’s two main “Wild Wild Girls,” Danni (Kelly Brook) and Crystal (Riley Steele), who perform a barely R-rated underwater ballet while wearing nothing but nearly imperceptible flesh-colored thongs (as their auteur points the camera and excitedly shrieks, “Fish with boobies!”). Lest one get the impression that Derrick gets exactly what he wants, well, that’s most assuredly not the case here, and Aja delights in dealing out well-deserved fates for similarly contemptible characters as well. Just one example of such hilarity occurs with a cameo by Eli Roth (mocking his own reputation) as the emcee of a wet t-shirt contest, which ends in quite the gratifying manner for all parties.
Indeed, while women are objectified during most of Piranha, most of this is owing to the “bikinis, boobs, and blood” school of B-movie filmmaking. In sharp contrast, Shue embodies the film’s strong central female character with a physical toughness that betrays her compact frame, which has absolutely nothing to hide but also never shows itself off as a sexual object. She lends a sense of reality amidst the chaos and ridiculousness of the carnage at hand, aided primarily by geologist Novak (Adam Scott) and Deputy Fallon, whose badassery is not limited to shooting the fish with a shotgun but also involves ripping out a boat’s motor to better kill the little fuckers. No one ever said this all had to make sense, but while the plot of Piranha 3D is as typically inane as just about any horror flick, its technical execution is nothing short of arresting.
Despite a post-production 3D conversion, Piranha 3D was obviously planned from its initial stages as a 3D movie and was shot accordingly. So, it looks a hell of a lot better than the recent blurry messes that were Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender. Of course, the 3D effects themselves are pretty gimmicky, but they suit the schlockiness of the movie, with the technology mostly used for gross-outs (vomit and regurgitated body parts) and scares (hands reaching out of the water). Even though this is an extremely bloody, gory film, it’s so well-choreographed that if, say, a prima ballerina were to have leapt into the blood-soaked maelstrom, it wouldn’t have been entirely inappropriate. Music and cinematography are also top-notch (unheard of for a B-movie), with a skilled use of lighting and camera angles that emphasize the tension and amps up the action factor. All of this works far too well to present any excuse for missing this movie.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.