REVIEW: Wild Piranha 3D Revels In Joys of Pure Exploitation
There's a degree of gruff integrity at work for at least two-thirds of Alexandre Aja's grindhouse piranhapalooza Piranha 3D, in which a megaschool of man-eating fish thought to be extinct burst through an underwater fissure to terrorize a normally placid lake in Arizona. During spring break, no less. You know what that means: Lots of naked and semi-naked nymphs writhing around, exposing much comely flesh to be nibbled upon. Ah, the pleasures of unapologetic, good-natured exploitation! Until the movie takes too sharp a speedboat turn into excessive and somewhat unpleasant goriness, Aja gets the tone just right: Piranha 3D takes place in a fictional locale known as Lake Victoria, but it may as well be called Lake Titty-cockoff.
This is well-crafted crapola, crisply edited and constructed so that there's at least a semblance of storytelling tucked between the numerous grisly effects. (The script is by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, and the movie broadly borrows the premise of Joe Dante's 1978 Piranha.) Innocent 17-year-old hottie Steven R. McQueen is supposed to be watching his two adorable blond siblings during the lakeside town's most exciting season, while his mom, the local sheriff (Elisabeth Shue -- now you know where the kid's hottie genes come from), goes about her daily business keeping the peace. In the movie's opening scene, a codger in a fishing boat (Richard Dreyfuss) is cruelly offed by the manivores who have invaded the lake from beneath its surface, an earthquake having opened a nice little crack for them to swim up through. Shue and her lawman colleague Ving Rhames find the body -- worms already wriggling their way through its picked-clean eyesockets -- and wonder aloud if maybe, just maybe, it might be a good idea to close the lake to all those scantily-clad young folk who will be arriving soon?
And so it's only a matter of time before these bloodthirsty critters realize that spring break at Lake Victoria means all the fried eggs and sausages they can eat. Supporting players who get drawn into the feeding frenzy include Adam Scott as a seismologist called in to investigate the under-lake earthquake activity, Jerry O'Connell as a sleazy web-porn impresario behind Wild Wild Girls, Kelly Brook as a buxom, appealing wild, wild girl, and Jessica Szohr as the young hero's cute love interest. Christopher Lloyd also shows up as an eccentric fish know-it-all, and Eli Roth has a small role as a character who is referred to only as "Wet T-Shirt Host."
That should give you some idea of what you're in for if you venture forth to see Piranha 3D. The movie's first hour is filled with sick jokes, the occasional ill-fated swimmer being beset by killer fish amid clouds of pinky-red water, and numerous mild gross-outs, many of them focusing on particular details of after-dinner carcasses. Some of the effects are marvelously witty: A pretty, pearly fish egg floating deep beneath the water's surface turns transparent before our eyes, and inside we see a killer P-baby getting ready to hatch. A bit later in the film, some of the gags get truly sick: A lithe young thing perched in a floating innertube proves irresistible to our little Mesozoic villains, who give new meaning to the phrase "bottom feeder."
It's in the last third, during the teen beach party massacre, that Aja lets things get a little out of hand. Most of the effects are just gory and dorky -- musclebound guys moaning as they're pulled from the water with bloody shoulders, and so forth -- but a few of them step over the boundary from fun to grim: A wounded girl being drawn from the piranha-infested waters is torn in half by her two rescuers; another young woman has her scalp yanked off by an outboard motor. Aja breaks faith with the audience in this last third, working too hard to up the gore ante and temporarily losing control of the movie's rapturously disreputable tone.
But in true exploitation tradition, there's a sense of Biblical morality at work in Piranha 3D: Every guy who refers to a woman as a "bitch" or a "whore" has really bad things coming to him. (The marvelously oily O'Connell receives the worst possible punishment.) All of the actors here give much better performances than this type of material needs, especially Shue, who, as anyone who has seen Leaving Las Vegas will recall, has far more talent than Hollywood has any idea how to use.
And you may be wondering if the 3D effects actually make Piranha 3D any scarier or more fun than your random 2D horror cheapie. The answer is probably not -- and yet the 3D effects here work because they're a joyous exaggeration of everything we go to a movie like this hoping to see. Big boobs coming right at ya, bloody stumps waving hither and thither: Piranha 3D has it all, and it confirms my conviction that with rare exceptions (Henry Selick's marvelous Coraline being one of them), 3D technology should be reserved for high-quality motion pictures like this one, not trumpeted as the "immersive" future of all moviegoing. Piranha 3D wasn't 10 years in the making, and it shows. Thank God.