PIRANHA 3D: Cynical Hackwork Is Deadlier Than A School Of Killer Fish

There are few things more painful than sitting through a bad remake, a rule that doubles in strength when it is a bad horror remake – and Piranha 3D is one of the most dazzling failures in the recent “horror remake” sweepstakes.  It’s devoid of the genre savvy, the playful sense of wit and the craftsmanship that allowed Joe Dante’s original 1978 classic to transform an exploitation premise into a clever, enduring fan favorite.

And believe it or not, its failure to be a decent remake is actually the least of Piranha 3D‘s problems.

But first, the obligatory plot summary.  It’s spring break time and Lake Havasu, Arizona is beset upon by a gaggle of horny, drunk college kids.  However, local law-enforcers Sheriff (Elizabeth Shue) and Deputy (Ving Rhames) have something much worse to worry about when a small earthquake unleashes a gaggle of prehistoric piranha from a previously sealed-off body of water beneath the lake.

Meanwhile, Jake (Steven McQueen), the dopey eldest son of the sheriff shirks off babysitting duties to hang out with a sleazoid Joe Francis clone (Jerry O’Connell) shooting his latest “Wild Wild Girls” installment.  He also chases after Kelly (Jessica Szohr), a similarly dopey version of the “nice girl who sees the hero as a friend” archetype.  The sheriff teams up with aquatic researcher Novak (Adam Scott) to fend off the inevitable piranha attack on the spring breakers as the film becomes a game of “who will survive and what will be left of them?”

Before getting further into the film’s many problems, Your Humble Reviewer will confirm that he knew not to expect Shakespeare with this flick.  All he was hoping for was some well-choreographed shocks, a little sun-drenched sleaze and perhaps a few nice in-jokes between bits of mayhem.  Unfortunately, Piranha 3D managed to sink beneath those low-level expectations due to staggering ineptitude on all fronts.  Even worse, said ineptitude didn’t occur due to a lack of talent or filmmaking knowledge – it comes from a cynical laziness that suggests contempt towards its target audience.

The script is a mess of random subplots and “idiots do stupid things” contrivances.  There’s no attempt at building tension between the storylines, all the “comedy” is forced and the few attempts at in-jokes are lost opportunities (the opening Jaws reference will likely fly over the heads of younger viewers because it is so ineptly set up).  There’s also a suspense setpiece at finale time that is a dud because it is so excruciatingly moronic in its conception.  In fairness to the writers, some of the story’s problems were probably caused by heavy-handed editing – the film is 82 minutes, with credits – but this script is deeply flawed in all areas.  Even by throwaway-movie standards, this is an astonishingly incompetent piece of work.

As for the acting, Shue, Rhames and Scott turn in professional performances but have nothing to work with.  O’Connell is game for his role as the movie’s reisdent sleazeball but the screenwriters completely blow the opportunity to make a hate-worthy villain out of him (it says a lot about your writing abilities when you fail to make a character based on someone as vile as Joe Francis seem suitably hateful).  Thus, O’Connell quickly becomes a nuisance with all his yelling and arm-waving.  Richard Dreyfuss and Christopher Lloyd are unfortunately confined to lame bit parts (no one’s wasted good guest stars this badly since the last Rob Zombie opus).

However, it’s the teen lovebirds who carry most of the weight – and McQueen and Szohr are burdened with the most ineffectual and annoying “young hero” characters to hit the silver screen in years.  It almost seems unfair to criticize these two for their bad performances because their characters were so terribly written.  However, these two manage to waste the abundance of screen time they get with numbingly vacuous attempts at teen melodrama and angst.

That said, it’s the carnage that matters in a flick like this, right?  Some members of the horror press are trying to defend Piranha 3D as a glorious, “turn off your brain” exercise in blood and boobs.  To his credit, director Alexandre Aja fills the screen with as much two-bit carnage and carnality as he can summon up.

Unfortunately, quantity does not equal quality.  The design of the piranhas is effective but the CGI effects are mediocre at best and downright appalling when the attacks occur.  This is compounded by some truly wretched post-conversion 3-D effects that reduce every piranha frenzy to a headache-inducing blur of incoherent motion.  It’s tough to be shocked by something you can’t see clearly.  KNB-EFX’s gore makeup is typically professional but it is lingered upon for so long that it loses its effect (and the extras emoting beneath the latex are a pretty unconvincing bunch).

As for the boobs, well, after they’ve been on screen for five minutes, their novelty value disappears.  It’s hard to believe a film could make boobies seem boring but this is the only area where Piranha 3D is a success.

The worst element of the film is Aja’s lousy, lazy direction.  Aja has spent the first part of his career squandering the promise he showed in Haute Tension and it seems like he’s given up the ghost entirely with Piranha 3D.  He coasts on autopilot until the film’s much-hyped finale and that still manages to be a letdown.  Despite a few isolated, effective gore gags (the best is a particularly ruthless partier running over several of his fellow partiers as he tries to make it shore), it comes off as little more than a bunch of lingering views of poorly-enacted carnage and panic haphazardly stitched together.  Also, Aja’s handling of the humor in this film suggests he should stay far away from comedy in any form for the remainder of his career.  It’s obvious that he had no investment in his work, not even as a stylistic exercise, and the results suggest that he is devolving as a filmmaker.

To sum up, Piranha 3D is not the return to grindhouse filmmaking that some are trying to will themselves into believing it is (reality check: grindhouse films don’t cost $25 million and spend three years in development).  It doesn’t succeed as a horror film or a homage or a parody.  This is actually the big-screen equivalent of a “SyFy Original” movie, made all the worse by the lack of interest the filmmakers show in trying to make it work, and it is this year’s front-runner for Worst Schlock Film Of The Year.

8 Replies to “PIRANHA 3D: Cynical Hackwork Is Deadlier Than A School Of Killer Fish”

  1. Don, I enjoyed this review, but I took the film with a very different spoonful of sugar.

    I agree that the characterization sucked, but as pure exploitation/trash, I enjoyed every moment (appalling teen romance excepted)

    1. Believe me, Phantom, I envy you – I really, really wanted to like this. I just didn’t think that it did ANYTHING well. The only ones I’m willing to give credit for solid work on this aqua-turd are the KNB-EFX gang.

      My biggest complaint with PIRANHA 3D is that the filmmakers thought they could just slack off as long as they kept the gore and nudity levels high. Unlike a lot of people trying to mount serious defenses of this flick, I’m not willing to accept the idea that an exploitation film doesn’t have to fulfill basic storytelling needs to work. I didn’t want high art but I did want a basic level of competence in plotting and characterizations to hang my hat on.

  2. Yeah…

    The more I think about it, the more it seemed like a random series scenes stitched together to make a movie. Like they just shot a bunch of stuff (mostly T&A) and then got bored with it.

    I like how in interviews Aja refers to this as a cheap film. Maybe it’s my naivete, or the fact that my brain largely functions in CAD, but $25 million US seems like a lot of money to make a movie. Or it can be, if spent wisely.

    1. I think Aja’s just pandering to the fanboys who are deluded enough to believe this is an actual exploitation flick. And I’m sure a lot of that money didn’t actually make it into the shooting budget because the production values had a very, very cheap look to them.

  3. Horrible movie. HORRIBLE. Terribly directed. Strongest urge to walk out of a movie I have had in some time.

    Two more reasons that the Jerry O’Connell character fails (other than just being in a bad movie) is that (1) the movie is more misogynistic than his character (he may film them swimming naked, but the director chops them in half – hey, but not before getting a boob shot); and (2) the director is as obsessed with gleefully showing “girls gone wild” as the O’Connell character. The “what a slimeball” commentary kind of gets lost every time the director cuts to a close-up of some bikini-clad ass.

    1. I agree – this is as ugly as it is inept. Why it has gotten such a free ride from critics (Owen Gleiberman gave it a B-!!!) is mystifying.

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