If you’re going to see the cheesy, over-the-top, ’80s-style bloodbath that is “Piranha,” 3D is the way to go. I don’t care what the fancy-talking apologists say, THIS is what 3D was made for: in-your-face gore and nudity. “Piranha” plays up the third dimension with an abundance of things that pop, jiggle, or explode right at the viewer. Does it look “real”? No. It doesn’t look real in other 3D movies, either. 3D is a gimmick, and at least “Piranha” has the good sense to embrace that fact.
Paradoxically, however, “Piranha” is not worth 14 bucks, which is about what it costs to see a 3D movie these days. It’s a B-movie, and as such is worth (almost by definition) no more than the matinee price. But the only way to see it cheaper is in 2D. And if you’re going to see it in 2D, you might as well not bother seeing it at all.
Directed by the possibly insane Frenchman Alexandre Aja (“The Hills Have Eyes,” “Haute Tension”), “Piranha” was inspired by the “Jaws” rip-offs, including two piranha-based ones, that flourished in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The screenplay, by Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (“Sorority Row”), clearly used “Jaws” as a template, what with local law enforcement trying to close the beach on a warm-weather holiday after deadly fish are discovered. Stealing from “Jaws” is OK, though, because Richard Dreyfuss has a cameo in which he plays a guy named Matt Hooper, which was also his name in “Jaws,” so ha ha get it?
Yes, “Piranha” is self-aware, and thank goodness for that. It’s set at Lake Victoria (played by Lake Havasu) during Spring Break, a time for college-aged American youth to get drunk and rape each other and be torn apart by fish. An earthquake releases a swarm of prehistoric piranha that have been chillin’ in an underground cavern; killarity ensues.
On hand to witness and/or be part of the all-the-fish-can-eat buffet are Elisabeth Shue as the local sheriff, Ving Rhames as her deputy, Steven R. McQueen as her teenage son, Jessica Szohr as his crush, Adam Scott as a seismologist, Jerry O’Connell as a “Girls Gone Wild”-style video producer, and Christopher Lloyd as a crazy old ichthyologist. (The once and future Doc Brown, bless his heart, is at the stage where every character he plays will be both crazy and old.) The cast is fleshed out — yes, “fleshed out” is the term I’m looking for — with a bevy of attractive young women who generally eschew clothing prior to being slaughtered, which is to say they start out topless and end up legless.
Aja’s philosophy is that the boobs and blood are all you really want in a movie like this, so why not show them in great abundance? This logic leads to a sequence in which two nubile, naked women swim gracefully underwater for several minutes (it is not explained how they are able to breathe) while the guys watch them through the glass bottom of the boat. This is accompanied by a beautiful strain of opera music (Delibes’ “Flower Duet,” specifically).
As for the blood part of the boobs-and-blood method, Aja and his crew find an impressive number of ways to kill people gruesomely. Perhaps it is a blessing that the CGI gore seldom looks like anything approaching reality.
But Aja is only partly correct in his assumption that violence and nudity are all we’re after. We would welcome witty dialogue, interesting characters, and genuine suspense, too, if someone wanted to provide those things. It’s just that we’re so accustomed to not getting them in movies like this that we’ve stopped expecting them — to the point where it’s now somehow a violation of principle if a creature feature DOES contain actual, you know, quality.
The original B-movies were the way they were out of necessity. Producers lacked the time, money, and/or talent to make genre films that were truly excellent, so they made cheesy ones as best as they could. Alexandre Aja and The Weinstein Company, on the other hand, have all the resources they need, and it’s not like a movie about killer fish CAN’T be well-written, well-acted, and well-produced; see “Jaws,” for example. Aja and company simply didn’t WANT to make an excellent film. Why bother, when making a film that’s lousy but ironic is so much easier?
Even strictly as a B-movie, though — even by its own lowered standards — “Piranha” falls short. The first half is disappointingly slow and tame, the first few deaths tossed off carelessly, with very little set-up. But once the mayhem begins in earnest, you’ll get more or less what you wanted. Or, rather, more or less what you were expecting to settle for.
B- (1 hr., 28 min.; )