James Cameron's Piranha Part Two: Where Avatar Began?

Artists of all stripes repeat themselves, whether through themes, motifs or hues, and James Cameron is no exception. So the question I've been asking myself as I count down the days to Avatar's debut is this: just how much of the long-awaited 3-D space blockbuster was predicted by the man's inauspicious debut, 1981's Piranha Part Two: The Spawning?

The notion sounded kind of silly, even to me as I dragged the musty old VHS from its dust-coated shelf in the Bad Movie archives. After all, how could a sequel to a Roger Corman Jaws rip-off that was made for a pittance nearly 30 years ago have anything - anything -- to do with the quarter-billion dollar Movie That Will Revolutionize Cinema As We Know It™?

But from the very first frames, Piranha Part Deux bears what could be considered Cameron's signature stamp. We join the action as a couple descend into the deep blue unknown, diving to a naval wreck off the coast of a Caribbean island. For a cheapie knock off, these underwater scenes are surprisingly good and a little taste of what we'd see in The Abyss, Ghosts Of The Abyss, Aliens Of The Deep and, of course, Titanic. Anyway, here, because we're firmly in B-movie territory, our intrepid underwater couple get nekkid, get it on and then get munched by swarming piranha fish.

The attack is but the prologue to... about 30 minutes of hijinks at Club Elysium. This is a pleasure-island resort whose attractions include horny Jewish swingers, a Mr. Muscle Contest and - foreshadowing! - the Annual Fish Fry Beach Festival, which sees landlubbers club gather by the Full Moon to snatch up the local grunion fish population as they come up unto the sand to spawn.

Amid the bacchanal, though, we're introduced to our heroes. They may be bare-bones characterizations, but damn if they don't carry through to Cameron's later work. There's Anne, the curly-haired, sexy-smoking and take-no-shit marine-biologist who's not too many galaxies removed from Ripley in Aliens - and thus, by extension, also related to Sigourney Weaver's botanist Grace Augustine in Avatar. Anne is estranged from her husband and the father of her son, island cop Steve, played by frequent Cameron ensemble player Lance Henriksen. In an arc that has a whiff of True Lies, she'll continually defy his instruction to "go home and sit on your hands." Then there's Anne's dalliance, Tyler, who appears to be a playboy but turns out to be a biochemist for the shadowy government agency who thought it a good idea to puree the DNA of grunion, flying fish and piranha for their Aliens-like weapons program.


There are specific moments, too, that Cameron would revisit. When a piranha pops out of a corpse, we're firmly in Giger-chestbursting-infringement territory. For professional reasons, Alien had been on Cameron's mind at this time. That's because before directing this film the budding effects artist had not only designed a "spaceship with tits" for Roger Corman's Battle Beyond The Stars but also done second-unit and production design on the schlockmeister's 1981 Alien rip-off, Galaxy Of Terror. Thus the ending of Piranha Part Two -- a boilerplate Ridley Scott riff in which Anne crawls through underwater airvents while a timer counts down on the explosives set to blow up the naval wreck the killer fish call home. Other scenes echo down to Cameron's later work almost subliminally, such as the bimbo who goes down into the blood-boiling waters with one disco finger raised, a la Arnie at the end of Terminator 2, or when Tyler says to Anne of hard-ass Steve, "You know that robot?" -- which is exactly what Henriksen would play in Aliens.

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