I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking, "John - all year you've done nothing but mention (note: mention, not complain) that handling an infant at home leaves you nary an opportunity for a casual outing to the theater. Now you're telling us when you actually manage to sneak out of the house, the summer movie that just HAS to be seen is Piranha 3-D?? Why didn't you see Inception?" Well first off, I'd rather see Piranha XIII: The Munching than Inception (unless Piranha XIII was directed by Christopher Nolan). Secondly, if James Cameron, director of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, was right about 3-D being the future of movies and Avatar's success continues to convince studio heads that this is the case, the one thing I definitely don't want to miss coming at me in three dimensions is a bloodthirsty piranha with razor-sharp teeth. That's the original spirit of the gimmick, the artless drive-in movie tool that failed to provide genuine thrills but perfectly embodied that carnival-like exploitation spirit. So I don't want to see blue Native American aliens or bending buildings slipping off the screen and getting in my face: I want monsters and improperly-utilized power tools and fish that can bite my face off.
In anticipation of the new film, I viewed Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, which I pointed out borrowed even more from Jaws (and its first sequel) than Dante's original. Well this new one opens with Richard Dreyfuss fishing, wearing the same jean jacket and black hat he had on in his first scenes in Spielberg's movie, singing Quint's song about the Spanish Ladies (kind of a weird decision to have the song coming from a radio, what station is he listening to?) This is more than just a reference - I guarantee Aja and company really intend this to be Matt Hopper*, 35 years down the line, retired from marine biology and just enjoying a quiet afternoon on his boat while thinking about the past. Then that past literally explodes beneath him as an earthquake splits the ground below the surface, spinning his boat around in a whirlpool and forcing him into the water where thousands of liberated killer fish are waiting for him. Hooper's on-screen incarnation may have avoided the nasty death suffered in Peter Benchley's novel, but here he's chewed to bits as a message from the filmmakers to the general public that simultaneously acknowledges its inspiration (as Dante's film did by having a character play the Jaws video game) and tears it pieces. Aja's film aims to be an alternately reverent and irreverent homage to 35 years worth of Jaws rip-offs, everything from Piranha 1 to Deep Blue Sea - it even riffs on the second Jaws sequel's title and central gimmick. And I'm convinced there's a shot that deliberately shouts out Titanic in honor of the auteur behind Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.
The overall feel of the film is that of a group of kids who found the keys to the fireworks factory. Having a plot involving mutated piranhas created as part of a military conspiracy that accidentally get released into a fresh water environment you wouldn't normally expect to find flesh-eating piranhas in is ok, but prehistoric piranhas unleashed by an underwater earthquake? That's awesome. If the makers of Jaws 2 could suggest the idea of a wind-surfer being raised out of the water with a pair of blood nubs where her legs used to be but not actually go through with it, Aja wants you to know that he is willing to. The movie has a problem deciding if it wants to be its own visceral horror movie or a tongue-in-cheek exercise in excess gore and nudity. I have no problem with either of these two things on their own, but it bothered me a little while watching it that the director couldn't settle on either of the two. For one thing, it's much goofier and self-mocking than anything Aja's done up to this point, or for that matter anything featured player/likely consultant Eli Roth has directed. Most of the time it feels like it's feeding off that Grindhouse phony trailer high, which is fine when you've written yourself into a fairly absurd situation where there needs to be a little hint of awareness, but for the most part I wish they'd handled the comedy with a tad more subtlety. Seriously guys, detach yourselves from the Robert Rodriguez school of cartoon excess and check out Joe Dante's original movie, which managed to acknowledge its own cheapness and absurd plot without making you feel self-conscious for enjoying it. That said, several of the visual jokes are really funny and almost all the graphic violence is appropriately squirm-inducing, and every one in a while - I'm thinking of the motor blade scene - they do blend perfectly together. And Kelly Brook and Riley Steele's synchronized swim? Well that's just a great moment in general isn't it?
Despite an extended period of exposition, there isn't much investment in the characters. The young hero has a Pixies t-shirt and Radiohead and Lou Reed posters up in his room so you know he's sensitive and into hip bands that the other townies assumedly never heard of. In contrast, the bully is such a cowardly pussy he literally plows over swimmers in a motorboat to escape the piranha threat, even though he was never in danger. For her part Elisabeth Shue doesn't get a chance to do much except look worried and yell at people through a megaphone until the end where she has a nice move jumping from her police cruiser onto a tube and into an empty boat so she can go save her kid (not quite as badass as Lance Henriksen bailing out of a helicopter and letting it crash into the ocean to save his son but we'll accept it). The character with the most personality is Jerry O'Connell's Joe Francis-like videographer, who loses a certain body part which is eaten and regurgetated by one of the fish in the movie's biggest crowd-pleasing moment.
Aja does miss a few opportunities: in one scene where two divers are exploring the underwater cavern the earthquake has created and one of them heads into a cave leaving his female partner out in the rift, I thought to myself "how awesome is it going to be when suddenly the entire sun is blotted out above her, and the girl looks up and sees a literal cloud of piranhas swimming overhead?!" That would have been a great moment but it doesn't happen: the piranhas are, more predictably, inside the cave and get the guy before coming out for the girl. But Aja's not Superman, he can't be on top of everything, and the moments that really work like a finale where the final survivors are forced to use the old hand-over-hand rope rescue gimmick from Greg Mclean's recent killer crocodile movie Rogue to escape are genuinely effective. As to my prediction that Aja considers this not only "Piranha (in) 3-D" but "Piranha (Part 3 in) 3-D," there are no specific references to the events of the previous two films although the director recently said in a Fangoria interview, "My goal is not to remake Piranha, but to create a completely new adventure paying homage to all the creature films." Good enough for me. Dante and Cameron were hungry first-time directors with something to prove, but Aja has three flawed but overall impressive efforts under his belt (not to mention an award-winning debut short and feature-length Cortázar adaptation) so that energy is kind of missing from the movie. In that way Aja is a little like O'Connell's pathetic promoter, trying to get his killer fish stirred up to strip off the swimming cast's flesh the way O'Connell tries to sweet talk the young ladies to strip off their bikini tops. But the resultant 3-D vomit that O'Connell's relentless badgering brings out in one of his nubile targets is certainly the intended result in the director's case.
* Although his character name is Matt Boyd...he probably changed his last name to avoid the publicity of the Amity attacks.
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