The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Piranha 3D was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Joe Dante’s 1978 version of Piranha was a sly spoof of Jaws that featured well-conceived leads and carried with it warnings about the price of overly developing natural wonders into artificial tourist traps. This remake — the second after a 1995 TV-movie version — has no concerns with offering up a thoughtful subtext or interesting characters for the audience; all it wants to be is dumb, bloody fun. Director Alexandre Aja delivers on the dumb and bloody, but forgets all about the fun.
Lake Victoria, Arizona is a hotspot for college kids on spring break. As mass hedonism descends on the lake, an earthquake opens a cavern that connects the surface lake with an underground lake, out of which prehistoric piranha swarm. Quicker than you can say fish food, local sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) has more than drunken frat boys and Wild Wild Girls smut-peddler Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) to worry about. The swarm of piranha makes their way to the local party marina where they proceed to feast on numerous barely clothed (and unclothed) coeds.
And that’s pretty much all there is to the movie.
I’m not trying to be a snarky film critic with that last comment; that is literally all there is to this movie. The first act is as dull a twenty minutes I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Aja spends the bare minimum of time introducing the main characters and setting up what the piranha are and what they will do. A nominal protagonist is offered in teenager Jake (a suitably bland Steven R. McQueen), Julie’s son, but he does so many stupid things when we meet him that it’s impossible to care about him. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to care about any character in this film since they’re not even characters. They can’t even be called caricatures; they are merely vessels for spewing exposition and to be eaten by the swimming digital beasties.
I realize all of that doesn’t matter. What matters is the carnage inflicted by said beasties. Aja does deliver with a stunning 25-minute sequence that features more blood, gore, and bodies being torn apart than the opening of Saving Private Ryan. But even this protracted bit of insanity fails to live up to the fun promised in the premise. Aside from the occasional bit of humor that comes with seeing a particularly hateful character (plot vessel) get his comeuppance, these scenes aren’t particularly entertaining. In fact, they’re rather grim. I can’t believe this was the tone that Aja was going for.
Even worse than offering up no character to care about or fumbling the tone when it comes to the carnage, Aja wastes a decent cast. Not only is Elisabeth Shue on hand to cash a paycheck, but also such varied (and usually reliable) actors like Adam Scott, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, and Richard Dreyfuss (in a cameo that spoofs his character of Matt Hooper from Jaws) pop up to wallow in the gutter for a few moments.
This seems like such a difficult premise to get wrong. Killer fish plus scantily clad coeds plus eclectic cast should equal a fun exploitation movie. Instead Aja fumbles the tone, the script by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg is barely more than a loose collection of scenes, and the digital piranha look cartoonishly bad. Save yourself the money and rent Joe Dante’s original instead, you’ll be glad you did.
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