If you see only one movie this year featuring a man's penis being eaten by a ravenous horde of prehistoric fish, by golly make it this one. Piranha 3D is not a sequel to the old, schlocky franchise so much as a reboot of the first film, itself a blatant ripoff of Jaws. Thus, when Richard Dreyfuss shows up in the first scene of the film singing "Show Me the Way to Go Home," director Alexandre Aja instantly crystallizes what the film has to offer: a tension at all times undercut by a wry point-of-view.
This is only exacerbated when Dreyfuss' character, sloshing about on a wee fishing boat, drops a beer bottle into the lake, and somehow the light touch of a sinking bottle setting down on a lake bed already covered with litter causes an earthquake that frees a horde of prehistoric piranhas trapped in a hidden reservoir for millions of years. Anyone who would point to this as highly unlikely is just being an asshole.
The unleashing of a swarm of killer fish into Lake Victoria coincides with Spring Break, and the family-friendly throngs of visitors of Amity Island cannot compare to the bikini-clad, hosed-down nymphets and Axe body spray-gargling frat boys who turn the place into an orgy with awful, awful music for a week. In this frenzy, it's difficult to make out the locals, who conveniently do not have to book hotels to get front-row seats to more wet t-shirt contests than you can shake a beer bong at. Yet poor Jake Forester (Steven R. McQueen) immediately stands out as someone who did not elect to come here, an awkward teen who looks disappointed that his sheriff mother (Elizabeth Shue) won't allow him to join in any of the fun but seems the sort of fellow who wouldn't enjoy all the partying if he did manage to get into the fracas.
For the first 45 or 50 minutes, Aja makes a noble stab at actual suspense. He gives us enough shots of people swimming and narrowly escaping a horrid death they do not perceive to inject tension into the film. Even as he sets up the absurdity's of Jake's plot -- sneaking out of babysitting duty to show a Joe Francis-like, amateur pornographer (Jerry O'Connell) the hot spots of the area while his love interest Kelly tags along in the most awkward manner possible -- the director shamelessly manipulates the 13-year-old that lingers in the minds of the overwhelmingly male demographic to whom this film appeals. In between every shot of bared breasts is another amusingly clichéd moment of horror that knows how silly it is but tries to make us jump anyway.
Then, Aja just goes mental. Not coincidentally, the tipping point lines up with an appearance by Christopher Lloyd, who gives one of the most inexplicably knowledgeable chunks of expository dialogue this side of a John Carpenter movie. His urgent gasps set up the next sequence, one of the most insanely gory setpieces I have ever seen. As with Jaws, the people splash about, unaware that anything's wrong, and when the sheriff learns about the piranhas and attempts to close the lake, the invading youth ignore her commands pay her no mind.
Where Piranha 3D breaks from Jaws is that Spielberg's film involved but a single giant killer, a beast that could only attack a single person at a time. But a swarm of thousands of tiny fish can converge upon multiple victims. Armed with a surprisingly sophisticated effects team, Aja stages a grand-scale carnage that comes to resemble less a rip-off of Spielberg's masterpiece than the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Dozens of large-breasted (female and male, to be honest) undergrads find themselves stripped away in seconds. The scale of prosthetics involved in this project, from legs reduced to a few clumps of jagged flesh hanging off entirely exposed bones to scalped swimmers caught in the blades of self-centered individuals who power their boats to shore without helping anyone. In seconds, the hints of camp erupt into outright frenzy, but there's enough carnage on the screen that even the director has to take a step back every now and then to retain his humanity.
It's understandable that the studio would hold the film from a critical screening, what with the sight of several porn stars hired to present their wares before dying horrible deaths and the stiff dialogue. However, the actions of the studio demonstrate their own lack of faith in the project, as Piranha 3D is so well-made and so self-aware without being aloof about it that it instantly appeals to the cinephile's love of the trashier side of things. Aja cares primarily about boobs and blood here, but the staging of the film, right down to its deliberately and appropriately kitschy use of 3D, is so cheeky yet knowing that the film is destined to be a party favorite for cinema lovers looking for something to help them unwind as it will be for junior high school lads who will make sure their parents are out of the house before whipping out (so to speak).
The cast works brilliantly, from Lloyd's Sam Loomis-esque pseudoscience to Adam Scott's seismologist diver, refreshingly cowardly at first instead of conducting himself with unbelievable poise. O'Connell has an absolute blast playing Derrick, and you can see him in scenes actively trying to make you hate him before the fall. The younger actors don't have the same experience, but they acquit themselves nicely for a film that only needs them to create a focal point for the disparate scenes of carnage. But it's Elizabeth Shue who carries the film, instantly conveying a bad-ass demeanor that is thankfully never sullied by moments of woe-is-me sobbing, even when she faces the prospect of her children dying an unimaginable death.
Aja's choreographed bloodbaths rely on the same gore wizardry of George A. Romero's classic Dead films, which also had the power to make you laugh in spite of yourself even as you turned away in revulsion. Like Romero, Aja never gives in fully to the torture porn aesthetic, making sure to keep his softcore separate from his feeding frenzies. For him, the piranhas are not so different from the youth who descend upon the town. Both are finely tuned hive minds with a single purpose: for the humans, it is to get wasted and laid. For the fish, it's to feed. Don't expect any social satire, mind you, but there's an actual, working mind running this show.
Piranha 3D isn't particularly fulfilling viewing; in fact, it might just devour a part of your soul. But it manages to present its buckets of blood without being flippant about the comedy. Thus, no one scene of the film is completely hilarious without an undercurrent of stomach-churning disgust under it, but it's nice that a horror-comedy can program that disgust into its makeup rather than simply engendering it in the audience. Still, be sure to bring some friends along to make everything that much wilder.
P.S. James Cameron said that this film's use of 3D was gimmicky. What he fails to understand is that 3D is a complete gimmick, and Aja's use of it as such is so much cleverer and more enjoyable than the admittedly (far) superior use of the technology in Avatar. Please, keep giving me films that know 3D is crap instead of the ones acting like it's the next great leap forward despite being 50-year-old technology.