Saturday, September 11, 2010

Piranha 3D

About an hour into director Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D comes one of the most insanely, unapologetically bloody ten minutes in the history of film. Until that point, the movie's kills are structured not unlike Spielberg's Jaws, violent and jarring but coming one at a time and spaced pretty far apart, but when the giant prehistoric piranhas descend upon the wet T-shirt contest being held on a float above the lake and the countless teenagers swimming nearby, the massacre begins. Dozens, maybe hundreds are devoured in minutes. What must have been tens of thousands of gallons of fake blood turn the sea red. It's a marvel of gore that achieves psuedo-B movie excess with aplomb unseen since Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror; a sequence destined to live on as a popular YouTube clip for all time.

This scene is more or less singlehandedly responsible for the film's enthusiastic reception among genre fans, but while I'd like to join them and I'd like to love Piranha 3D, I don't. It's not what's in the movie that bothers me so much as what's not in it. I'm not talking about stuff like rounded characters and human emotion that this sort of pulp doesn't demand, but more basic issues of pacing and structure and plain old satisfying horror. The wet T-shirt massacre is a grand set piece but there's still a fair bit of movie left afterwards, movie which does not live up to that scene's promise and actually ends up feeling dull, and the film's actual climax is so mild and understated in comparison that I had no idea I was even watching the climax until the credits suddenly started rolling, much left unresolved.

First off, there are characters who literally just disappear from the film. We don't see them die, we don't see them escape, they just mysteriously vanish. I've read that this is because they filmed death scenes and then didn't have the money to put in the CG to finish them, which I can sympathize with, but it doesn't change the fact that it plays ridiculously onscreen. More annoyingly, we briefly visit the piranhas' hive about halfway through the film, an eerie underground cavern deep beneath the water, and I assumed this location was being set up for a return trip during the climax, but no such luck. We never see it again. Made the trip to it feel kind of like a waste of time.

I also read a huge number of reviews suggesting that Piranha 3D is worthwhile because of all the nudity, but please. If a half dozen porn stars flashing their basketball-esque fake tits at the camera makes for great film, I could point you to hundreds of websites that create fine cinema each and every day. You'll never need to go to the multiplex again!

But I should say that, generic-looking porn stars aside, the cast of this film is in no way responsible for its shortcomings. Elisabeth Shue combines the roles of Roy Schneider in Jaws and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens as the town sheriff who battles the marine menace to save her children, and the role is noteworthy for being the most desexualized female action lead I've seen on film in a decade. I say this as a compliment. I mean, don't misunderstand, hot chick are awesome, but it was nice to see that in this day and age a woman can still kick ass on film while covered head to toe in a sheriff's outfit and without needing to fall in love or count on a man to save her. Piranha 3D improbably emerges, nudity, wet T-shirts and all, as one of the most feminist action films of 2010.

In addition to Shue, Adam Scott of the late, great sitcom Party Down is awesome as a badass seismologist, while Richard Dreyfuss puts in a cameo more or less reprising his lead role from Jaws and Christopher Lloyd channels Doc Brown with thrilling precision as a marine biologist. Elisabeth Shue of course played Jennifer Parker in Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III, so her scene across from Lloyd here functions as a little BttF reunion, particularly with Lloyd using Doc's exact inflections.

But in this case the whole is actually less than the sum of its parts. Lots of gore and entertaining performances give it some pulpy pleasure but I just didn't like the story and I didn't like the ending and I don't see myself ever watching it again. Nevertheless, the extremely low standards of the subgenre may still make it one of the top five "animals attack!" movies ever made. Jaws is clearly the best by a thousand miles, with Hitchcock's The Birds (not a great film as many claim, but still a very good one) being second. Piranha 3D's only real competitors for the remaining slots are Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane, and Jaws 2, so if you think those movies are awesome then maybe Piranha 3D is right up your alley, but if not there's better flicks to drop your cash on.

2 Stars out of 5

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