Piranha 3D (United States, 2010)

August 30, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Piranha 3D Poster

Seen in standard (non-IMAX) 3D.

A review of Piranha 3D is superfluous - the movie is what it is and does what any good exploitation film should do. Unfortunately, that's a lot more than many entries into the crowded genre can claim. 3D aside (more about that later), Piranha 3D delivers the goods - bikinis, boobs, bodies, and blood. Director Alexandre Aja successfully navigates the choppy waters of shifting cinematic tone; he may frequently have his tongue planted in his cheek, but that doesn't prevent him from generating intense moments in which the character identification is strong enough for there to be some suspense.

A loose remake of the 1978 Joe Dante vehicle, Piranha, this movie owes as much to Jaws as it does to its forebear. In fact, Aja references Spielberg's classic so many times that we expect the shark to make a cameo. Piranha 3D copies some of Jaws' underwater shots, uses strains of John Williams' iconic music in the score, and even brings back good old Matt Hooper. Now, the name "Hooper" isn't used (for legal reasons, I assume) but the character is called "Matt," he's played by Richard Dreyfuss, and has an affinity for "Show Me the Way to Go Home." 'Nuff said. This prologue, by the way, is presented in such a manner that it works differently for those who have seen Jaws than for those who haven't.

For most of Piranha 3D, Aja skates along the line separating satire/camp from horror without straying into the realm of outright parody. But he clearly enjoys having fun with the conventions of the genre. There's a naughty skinny dipping scene in which the naked women (Kelly Brook, Riley Steele) perform an underwater ballet that is not without… ahem… artistic qualities. The gore is excessive and over-the-top, as would be expected. And there are appearances of varying length by actors with recognizable names like Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, and the aforementioned Dreyfuss, who has openly chuckled about the size of his paycheck. Most of the heavy lifting, at least insofar as the "acting" is concerned, is performed by Shue, Steven R. McQueen, and Jerry O'Connell.

The story is set during Spring Break at Lake Victoria (Arizona). The local sheriff, Julie Forester (Shue), has a full plate this year. Not only has her town been overrun by unruly teenagers, but there's a mysterious death to be accounted for. She worries that something unsavory is lurking beneath the surface of the lake, but not even she suspects the large school of mutant piranhas that are down there, waiting to fill up their bellies with oversexed, underdressed college kids. Accompanied by her faithful deputy sidekick (Rhames), Julie goes out to keep order, commanding her 18-year-old son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), to watch his younger sister and brother. More interested in being a tour guide for Wild Wild Girls empresario Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell, who has boasted he's playing Joe Francis, the sleazy Girls Gone Wild honcho) than in experiencing any adventures in babysitting, Jake pays his siblings cash to keep quiet and stay out of trouble. He goes out on a boat with Derrick, two often-naked women, and Kelly (Jessica Szohr), the girl he has a crush on. All of this, wet t-shirt contest included, occurs as the hungry piranhas get closer.

For B-movie exploitation fans, there's little (if anything) that Piranha 3D doesn't offer. Those who prefer more straightforward horror/monster movies may at times become irritated by all the winking and nodding done by Aja, but the man (whose previous credits include High Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes) understands how to employ shock tactics even in something like this. Piranha 3D isn't played strictly for laughs. In fact, significant portions are intended to be taken seriously - at least as seriously as a movie about man-eating killer fish can be taken. Of course, there's plenty of humor. One of the best visual gags involves a piranha's reaction to something floating in the water that may or may not be edible. And when a stripper is devoured, two parts of her anatomy prove to be indigestible.

It wouldn't be Piranha 3D without the "3D," but it would be less expensive and more enjoyable. Once again, a movie is visually damaged by a shoddy 2D-to-3D conversion. The opening credits are almost unreadable and there are scenes that are blurry and indistinct. To his credit, Aja has corrected the brightness problem - the movie does not look like it's taking place in a cave. There are also some retro 3D shots, like a girl vomiting at the audience, that hearken back to "classic" 3D, when it was an unapologetic gimmick. Most of the time, however, the 3D is unremarkable and unnecessary - a means of jacking up the ticket price by 40%. For those who think the sight of two naked women cavorting underwater in 3D is worth the extra money, let me disabuse you of that notion - the scene will look just as good in 2D. Probably better, in fact.

Ultimately, Piranha 3D is like Sex and the City 2. Those with interest have already seen it; everyone else has given it a wide berth. It will please adherents of the genre and gross-out those with less bloody appetites. Bottom line: it's good, dirty fun and Aja should be applauded for understanding the genre and delivering exactly what the audience wants and expects. Plus, the cliffhanger/punch-line ending need not cause even a moment's frustration (although it's still worth a hearty chuckle), since Piranha 2-3D has already been announced.

Piranha 3D (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2010-08-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1