Monday, 13 September 2010

Piranha (2010)

I thought this film was actually called Pirahna 3D, sticking to the formula of the third entry in a horror series being in 3D, but apparently it's just called Piranha and it's a sort-of-remake of Joe Dante's 1978 original. Like that film it's about (spoiler) killer piranha being let loose on a popular tourist destination, but thankfully they've ditched the played-out military experiment angle for the simpler if less plausible explanation that an earthquake has split open a subterranean cavern, releasing thousands of prehistoric piranha that have survived there for millions of years by cannibalising each other, even though ecosystems do not work that way. You know, that old chestnut.

The main character is this nerd Jake, played by Steven R. McQueen. I was going to make a joke about him being no Steve McQueen, but it turns out it's actually his grandson. He is a resident of of a town in Arizona called Lake Victoria, a tourist destination popular with college kids. Every year he wants to take part in the Spring Break debauchery but his mother (a surprisingly hot Elizabeth Shue) is the sheriff, so he always has to stay home and babysit his little brother and sister. This year, however, the sleazy producer of a Girls-Gone-Wild-esque video series (Jerry O'Connell) offers him a job as a location scout, so he sneaks away for some fun on O'Connell's party boat, along with two porn stars (one a real-life porn star, the other Kelly Brook) and his would-be girlfriend Kelly (Jessica Szohr, who, like all teen actors these days, is from Gossip Girls).

There's nothing really new or interesting here and no real twists in the plot. Jake is your standard audience-identification character, as he wears a t-shirt from a hip band (Pixies) that everybody in the film hates for some reason, and he is in love with a girl who is dating some jock-asshole. You know he is going to save the day and win her love and he does. Surprisingly there isn't an evil capitalist who wants to keep the lake open, it's more a case of the drunken Spring Breakers not listening to the sheriff. There are also a couple of little-kids-in-peril, which are usually tension-killers but since I know Aja has the stones to kill them off they weren't too bad. These are not rich or compelling characters by any means, but I'm not going to make any jokes about the movie being in 3D but the characters being 1D. It's played out. Sorry.

There's also a whole bunch of minor characters. Adam Scott is a badass ocean seismologist, who gets to ride around on a jetski blowing piranhas away with a shotgun. Ving Rhames phones it in as the Deputy Sheriff, but dies a heroes death, chopping up dozens of piranhas with an outboard motor. Christopher Lloyd has a minor role as the eccentric scientist who tells them all about the creatures when they bring one in for analysis. Actually I think he's supposed to be a pet store owner, but he just so happens to have prehistoric piranha fossils in his back room, so fuck it, he's a scientist.

The film also opens with a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, and just in case you didn't know it was a reference to Jaws he sings Show Me the Way to Go Home. If I recall the original film had quite a few Jaws references as well, so I thought that was pretty cool. In another nod to Jaws, there's a scene where the sheriff gets a call from her son, and when she realises in horror that he's out on the lake rather than at home with the kids they imitate that dolly-zoom effect from the shark attack scene (or more accurately Vertigo). Although the son doesn't say where he is, she immediately hops into a boat and sails out to their location. Plot holes like this abound, such as the mystery surrounding O'Connells assistant, played by Paul Sheer, who just disappears from the film with no explanation.

With the plot holes and forgettable characters, this film is a lot like a SciFi Originals monster movie, the main difference being that this one actually delivers the goods. Once the piranhas crash the Spring Break festivities, the movie turns into an all-out gorefest, where pretty much every money shot you can imagine from a film like this is realised in graphic detail. You know that gag where someone is pulled out of the water only to reveal that the bottom half of their torso has been chewed off? That happens about five times, and once with a topless parasailer with massive jugs. Some of the deaths, such as where a girl gets her hair caught in a boat propeller, cross that fine line between squirm-inducing-fun-time-at-the-movies and Jesus-this-is-pretty-fucked-up. Plus most of it is realised through top-quality practical effects.

Speaking of latex and silicone enhancements, this movie also delivers a lot of naked flesh. It's weird, because the modern age of high-speed internet porn have given titty movies have a quaint charm, like homemade butter or casual racism, but this movie has a pathological obsession with boobs and asses that makes Russ Meyer look like a puritan. Even Jake's 10-year-old sister is obsessed with titties. The movie doesn't go five minutes without cutting back to Spring Break (WOOOO!!) where some girl is shoving a big pair of 3D boobs in your face. There's even a wet t-shirt contest hosted by Eli Roth (playing himself presumably), which seems a little redundant when there are so many topless girls on display.

I especially liked this leery, over-the-top approach to nudity as it often dipped into hilarious self-parody. One amazing scene has two naked girls frolicking underwater in slow motion, while classical music plays in the background. It's straight out of a trashy 70s Euro-horror film like Tombs of the Blind Dead, so of course I loved it. Jerry O'Connell's character plays into this atmosphere perfectly. It's weird to think that the fat kid from Stand By Me would end up playing such a date-rapey asshole, snorting rails of coke with porn stars and pressuring underage girls into performing belly-button tequila shots. By the end of the film, you feel he almost, almost deserves his grisly fate.

With the current wave of 3D movies, everyone (well, maybe just James Cameron) seems intent on turning 3D (and the associated increase in ticket prices) into a subtle, seamless part of the moviegoing experience. After seeing Piranha 3D though, I wonder if maybe it works better as a gimmicky sideshow attraction. I thought Friday the 13th Part 3 hit the high watermark when Jason Voorhees squeezed a guy's head so hard his eyeball flew into the camera, but Piranha finds even better ways to crassly exploit the third dimension. I was ready to give Aja the crown when an actress vomits into the camera (wow, it's like a drunk girl is really throwing up on my face!) only for him to outdo himself when a cartoon piranhas fight over and then barf up a half-eaten penis. Well played, Aja, you are the king of 3D vomiting.

Admittedly I don't see movies in 3D that often, so I try and stay out of the 3D Holy Wars about whether a movie is "true" 3D or not. Apparently this is one of the fake ones. The CG was rendered for 3D, but the live-action stuff is fake since Aja wanted to shoot on film and those special 3D digital cameras don't work underwater. It's clear that the film was made with 3D in mind though, so even though it went through the dreaded post-conversion process like Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender, it doesn't look blurry or muddy. If you don't want to pay the extra few bucks I think this movie would still be very enjoyable in 2 dimensions, although I wouldn't recommend going any fewer dimensions than that.

(On a side note, when I saw this film they showed a bunch of pre-trailer advertisements, then they put up a title card telling you to put on the glasses and showed the exact same advertisements, only in 3D. What the hell is that shit?)

This one was directed by Alexandre Aja, and although he hasn't turned into the Master of Horror we were all expecting after Haute Tension, I've found a lot to enjoy about all his films, even the goofiest ones. This one is probably his dumbest to date, but it's also his most enjoyable as it delivers exactly what you want when you go to see a dumb, fun horror movie about killer piranhas in a compact 88 minutes. They are fairly blatant about setting up a sequel, so hopefully it will borrow the flying piranhas from James Cameron's Piranha 2, finding all new ways to debase and abuse the 3D technology that Cameron himself pioneered.

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