Yesterday, I had two concerns about going to see the new horror film, Piranha 3-D.
First off, I know that 3-D has been hailed as “the future of movies” and that apparently, Webster’s is considering whether to recognize 3Dgasm (which is the response that certain film goers have to 3-D regardless of whether the movie itself is actually good or if it’s just Avatar) for inclusion in the next edition of the dictionary. However, 3-D often makes me sick to my stomach and I mean that literally. 3-D makes me feel car sick. Considering that I love movies, if 3-D is the “future” than I’m probably being punished for something. That’s right. Avatar was just a result of my bad karma.
As for the second concern, I can’t swim and I am terrified of being underwater. Hanging onto the edge while wading in the shallow side of my uncle’s swimming pool is about as submerged as I can get without having a major freak out. It’s not just drowning that scares me. When I was 17, my family spent the summer in Hawaii and my sisters (being the meanies that they are) had a lot of fun with the fact that I’d spend hours lying out on the beach but I refused to even step into the ocean. It made sense to me. There were jellyfish and sharks and those weird little black coil things just floating around in the ocean. Thanks to seeing Piranha 3-D, I now know that there are also cute little fish that will eat you.
I dealt with my fear of the water by asking my sister Erin (who can actually swim because she’s cool and I’m not) to see the movie with me and to keep me calm if I started to have a panic attack. She agreed and she did an admirable job. She also helped me deal with my fear of 3-D when, during the coming attractions, she said, “Why don’t you take a Dramamine?” Now, according to Erin, the only reason she said this was because apparently I was “going on and on” about it. That’s not how I remember it but I just happened to have some Dramamine in my purse and I quickly popped a few.
If you’ve ever taken Dramamine then you know the way that it works is by basically kicking your ass until you pass out for a few hours. (I occasionally resort to using it whenever I’m getting hit with insomnia.) Within minutes of taking it, the Dramamine was saying, “Sleep, Lisa…” “But I want to see the movie,” I replied. “That wasn’t a request,” the pill responded. “Dammit, will you two shut up!?” Erin snapped. (That may have not actually happened.)
The point of all this is that I stayed awake through the entire movie, despite having taken the most powerful sleeping pill in existence. True, my mind did go a little bit goofy (Erin says I was “babbling” through the entire film) but it never shut down. That’s the type of movie Piranha 3-D is. The story moves so quickly and the mayhem is so over-the-top and excessive that the brain never gets a chance to relax enough to check out.
Piranha 3-D begins with an earthquake in Arizona. The earthquake opens up a passageway to an underground lake. As look would have it, the underground lake is full of a bunch of prehistoric piranha. These piranha quickly move up to an above-ground lake where they promptly eat Richard Dreyfuss. Having gotten a taste of Dreyfuss, they apparently decide to eat every other human being they come across and who can blame them?
Actually, the bloody and graphic demise of Richard Dreyfuss was the first clue I had that this film was going to work. Needless to say, Dreyfuss is the last surviving star of the original killer fish movie, Jaws. In Jaws, Dreyfuss is plays a character named Matt Hooper. In Piranha, he’s just named Matt. By introducing him and then promptly killing him off, Piranha lets us know that it understands the legacy of previous horror blockbusters (like Jaws) but that it has no intention of respecting it. In other words, this scene lets us know early on that the film is on the side of the fish.
Anyway, it turns out that its spring break and as a result, Lake Victoria, Arizona is full of stupid, drunken college students who are determined to hang out in the water no matter how many people get eaten. Sheriff Julie Forrester (Elisabeth Shue) struggles to maintain order on the streets with the help of her loyal deputy (a very likeable Ving Rhames). Julie is also a single mother and, the morning after ol’ Richard Dreyfuss gets devoured, her oldest son Jake (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the star of Enemy of the People) blows off his baby-sitting duties and agrees to help sleazy Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) film the latest installment of Girls Gone Wild on the lake. Sleazy, speedo-clad Derrick (and the fact that O’Connell looks really good in it doesn’t make that red speedo any less ludicrous) attempts to initiate Kelly (Jessica Szhor), the “good” girl who Jake likes into the world of straight-to-video, jailbait porn. Kelly, by the way, kinda has a boyfriend, a guy named Todd who will eventually end up killing a lot of people with a motorboat. Even before this, we know he’s a bad guy because he’s named Todd. Nobody named Todd or Tad is ever good in a horror movie.
Director Alexandre Aja doesn’t take much time introducing his cast of characters and he takes even less time in letting the fish devour them. So, no, the characters aren’t exactly all that developed. But it doesn’t matter really. With what little they have to work with, the cast works wonders. They know exactly what type of film that they’re in and they know why they are there and they embrace their roles as piranha fodder with an impressive sense of commitment. Best of all is O’Connell who turns sleazy, coke-fueled egomania into some sort of art form.
The real star of the film, of course, is director Alexandra Aja who takes a mainstream genre piece and who, much like his fellow French director, Jean Rollin, transforms it into a piece of pure grindhouse exploitation. Aja may use the clichés of the genre but he never blindly embraces them. Instead, he uses them to comment on both the genre and the audiences expectations of what those cliches mean. Aja takes everything we’ve come to expect — the blood and gore, the standard plot device of Shue’s children being stranded out on the lake, and the sudden death of nameless extras — and he then pushes them just a little further than the audience is expecting, As a result, he not only comments on those expectations but he forces the audience to question them as well.
This is never more apparent than in the film’s climatic piranha attack. This is when the piranha finally get around to attacking all of the swimmers at once. This is the scene that we all know is coming and that we’ve all been expecting and Aja does not disappoint. Things start out as you might expect. Close-up of bikinis. Drunk idiots in the water. A wet t-shirt contest. Rhamas and Shue come up in a boat and start yelling, “Everybody out of the water!” Because they’re a bunch of drunk dumbfugs, everyone responds by jumping into the water. Cut to an ominous piranha point-of-view shot. Suddenly, one woman — floating out in an inntertube — shouts, “Something bit me!” And suddenly, all Hell breaks loose.
This is the scene you knew was coming and you’ve seen it a hundred times before. What makes it memorable here is just how far director Aja takes things. These fish don’t just bite their victims. They literally devour them while the camera lingers over every piece of flesh that floats through the ocean. As everyone struggles to get out of the water, they get their skulls split open by passing boats. In the background, we see various feet, hands, and other body parts randomly floating in the water. One older man pulls his friend’s torso onto the beach and cradles it while screaming, “I love you, man! I love you!” As Shue tries to pull people out of the water, we see a teenager that’s already on the boat start to shake as his life expires. As I mentioned before, Todd tries to escape by forcing his motorboat through the crowd of terrified swimmers and graphically dismembers a lot of people in the process. It’s an incredibly graphic sequence, one that starts out as fun but which just keeps going and going, Director Aja understands that the audiences is expecting — probably even looking forward to — seeing a little blood. So, instead he assaults us with a lot of blood and he does so in such a way that the audience is forced to question why a little blood is fun but a lot of blood is disturbing. It’s as if Aja is saying, “You wanted to see people die, well — here they are, dead. You feel better now?”
As for the 3-D, Aja proves himself to be one of the few filmmakers to understand that 3-D is not the future of movies. It’s just another gimmick to be exploited and exploit it he does. However, he does so brilliantly and he is so shameless about it that watching Piranha 3-D simply serves to reiterate just how silly the whole 3-D craze really is. Every short is a tracking shot. The CGI piranha float across the screen, stopping momentarily to stare straight out at the audience and almost wink. The men in the audience seemed to be especially happy about all the boobs that literally seem to swing out of the screen and across the theater but they were a bit less enthused when a disembodied penis came floating out of the screen. By not only fully embracing the ludicrous possibilities of 3-D but by also doing so without any shamefaced attempts to justify its use, Piranha 3-D is perhaps the greatest 3-D movie ever made.