Junkfish: Piranha 3D

August 23, 2010

After all the hype, the derision, the debate, the increasing sales, the pitiful cash-ins, and the recent fall-off in interest (if box office is anything to go by, anyway), 3D finally comes into its own with Piranha 3D.  James Cameron and other somewhat credible directors might see it as the future of film-making, and there is every chance that someone will come along and do something interesting with it, but at this moment, through the blood-soaked vessel that is Piranha 3D, it reveals its strength to be in pure, unmitigated schlock.  It’s a gimmick, nothing more, and should only be used (if, indeed, at all) in the service of puerile, tongue-in-cheek affairs.  And this film is so tongue-in-cheek it explodes violently through the skin, not unlike the titular aquatic beasts.

Indeed, any fish-based horror that begins with Richard Dreyfuss in a boat, drinking beer, and singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home” is laying it’s cards on the table as soon as possible.  Venture no further for serious frights, for this will be campy exploitation through and through.  Drefyuss drops a bottle of beer, which somehow causes an earthquake that opens up a lake beneath Lake Victoria, a popular Spring Break destination for The Real Cancun cast members who couldn’t be bothered with border patrol.  The Sheriff of this charming lakeside hamlet (of which we only ever see one beachfront) is Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), who has several children, the eldest of whom is Jake (Steven R. McQueen), often tasked with staying home to babysit his younger siblings while there are a whole lotta titties going on elsewhere.  After meeting Kelly Brook, he gets recruited by sleazy porn-entrepreneur Derrick Jones (a wonderfully hammy Jerry O’Connell) to act as a location scout for his bizarrely sexless production.  There are the token seismologists (Adam Scott, Dina Meyer et al), the other cops (Ving Rhames being the most notable), and a smattering of cameos including Eli Roth, and Christopher Lloyd as The Exposition.  It’s shocking how little actually happens upon reflection.  There’s the standard set-up involving Julie working out that there is something wrong and a few quick deaths (divers, a parasailing topless woman who has her bottom half nibbled off when she dips too low) and then the main courses as the swarms of piranhas attack the spring break parties and Jake and the crew on their disabled boat.

It really isn’t much plot, and very little time is given over to developing it, but it’s nothing compared to the short shrift the characters get.  Aside from Jake, who goes from lonely, horny teenager in love with A Girl to hero who must save A Girl, there isn’t a single character arc in the film.  Indeed, many of the characters are given nothing more than a few minutes of screen time.  Likewise, the plot features virtually no resolution, with only the last-minute, minor goal of saving A Girl from a difficult spot giving any tension whatsoever to the climax.  What’s peculiar is that the bulk of the final third is given over to the chaotic massacre of the spring breakers, an event that leaves so little time for heroics that all that really happens is the piranhas attack and people hope to swim to shore while their friends are being eaten.  If you take the structure of Jaws as a reference point, imagine that film ended with little Michael on the yellow raft being eaten, except most of the other swimmers were gobbled up as well.  Of course, the point isn’t to follow a structure and gain resolution, the point is to find amusing and ridiculous ways to slaughter dozens of people, and some are most definitely amusing.  Still, one wonders whether director Alexandre Aja and the screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger wanted to lure us in with high camp killings, nudity, and the obvious structure, only to slap us in the face with mind-numbingly relentless gore.  As is the nature of these things, it is the debauched and promiscuous who get dealt the most hellacious blows, and as we see the porn stars swimming nude together in all their 3D glory, we expect them to be punished for their sinful ways.  By miring us in the grind of the final half hour, one wonders if the creators were indulging our expectations out of spite.  It’s interesting, to be sure, and I certainly have respect for any filmmaker who swings for the fences when it comes to the blood and guts, but for once the 3D comes in and saves the film from collapsing under the weight of its own excess.

The internet tells me that, though always intended for 3D, the film was actually shot normally and converted in post-production.  While I’ve seen worse examples of the technology, it doesn’t look great.  The dimness that results from layering strips of film over each other on top of the tinted glasses remains an issue, and while not really a problem during the daylight sequences, the night scenes and the murky underwater stuff certainly suffer.  On top of that, Aja’s camera moves too fast at times, leaving the picture to look like an unfocussed mess, especially in underwater sequences where the blood clouds the screen and a thousand little CGI fish zip about nibbling their flaying prey.  Shot after shot of death after death with full clarity would have very quickly become a rather depressing affair, but the limits of the technology gives these sequences an air of blurry mayhem, setting us up for the punchline shots of a head being crushed or silicone breasts rising to the surface.

In the end, the venture works.  It’s not great art, nor is it even the most fun the horror genre has put forth in recent years (Drag Me To Hell still stands above all others), but by and large it works, and at 90 minutes it never overstays its welcome.  So over-the-top it invites giddy chuckles, and though lacking in plot and characters, it makes sure we know that was never the point.  Tongue-in-cheek enough to let us know it understands, but not so jokey it comes off as smug, it is refreshingly honest about what it is and wants to achieve, and it just about succeeds.  For my (extra) money, that’s all I ask.

-M

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