Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Fish Called PIRANHA

Piranha in 3D is a disappointment in all three dimensions, though not for lack of trying. Alexandre Aja’s movie is a winking horror-comedy with a tongue so firmly in the cheek that it draws blood. It’s gratuitous in every possible way, up to and including its very existence, with something sure to offend every large portion of the general public, and yet the film never manages to generate any real transgressive charge. By the end of the run time, when the credits started to roll, I found myself thinking, “is that all there is?”

Aja’s always been a fine stylist of horror imagery, but I’ve found his prior works to be shockingly lacking, with High Tension and Mirrors containing plot holes so large and shocks so predictable that any sense of fun or danger is entirely missing. His small stylistic touches weren’t enough to alleviate my pure boredom with those projects. With Piranha, a remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 Roger-Corman-produced Jaws-inspired creature-feature, Aja has created his best film, but it’s still a disappointment. I liked just enough of it to wish it were better.

The movie starts promisingly enough with small-town sheriff Elisabeth Shue investigating a missing local (Richard Dreyfuss) and welcoming a team of geologists, led by Adam Scott, who are investigating recent seismic activity in the area. All of this is set against the backdrop of a busy Spring Break weekend that has brought hoards of idiotic amoral pleasure-seekers to writhe in the water. There’s a seedy carnival atmosphere taking over the town with slimy video producers (Jerry O’Connell and Paul Scheer) and a sleazy wet-T-shirt contest host (Eli Roth) playing ringmasters to the debauchery. It’s not a good sign that Shue’s teen son (Steven McQueen, Steve’s grandson) gets pulled into the craziness. And you know things are out of control when not even Ving Rhames with a bullhorn can command the crowd’s attention.

Of course, there are even bigger problems than crazy college kids. Those would be the thousands of starving prehistoric piranha that the aforementioned seismic activity has unleashed. Local scientist Doc Brown, I mean, Mr. Goodman (played by none other than – great Scott! – Christopher Lloyd) has grave pronouncements to make about the deadliness and danger brought by these aquatic killers. The opening scenes, and perhaps even half of the movie, alternate between scenes of ridiculously vulgar partying and swift, ominous shadows darting through the water. By the time the piranha attacks arrive, I was good and ready for some creepy-cool 3D comeuppances.

Rather than spacing them out through the length of the film, the majority of the deaths occur during one long bloody massacre of Spring-Breakers in what can only be described as the goofy gory centerpiece of the film. To be sure, some of the deaths are quite witty, like when a particularly buxom babe gets sucked underwater with, seconds later, two silicone spheres floating to the surface. It’s also a chilling rush to see hundreds of people thrashing through the water past their dying friends, capsizing boats and rafts while piranhas get blown away with shotguns and sliced to bits with boat motors. The water runs red with the blood of man and beast alike. But, after a while, what starts as horror-movie fun just grows sad. There’s a consistent, persistent intensity to this sequence that becomes literal overkill. The violence is so vivid and so sustained that it moves well past its purpose.

After the massacre we are given some perfunctory scenes of action and incident that are meant to resolve the immediate peril of the surviving characters. But then, it’s over. There’s a nice, shocking punchline that sends us into the credits (albeit one that’s front and center in the advertising), but the sense of disappointment is tough to shake. Sure, Shue’s family gives the movie a nice through line, but there’s little else of narrative interest. As the credits rolled, I found myself in a state of disbelief. The movie feels unfinished, like screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg wrote two-thirds of story and then never got around to writing a proper climax. The massacre makes for an overlong climax when it really feels like it should be the midpoint. I didn’t exactly enjoy the movie, but I wish it were longer.

Then again, this is a movie that really only promises to give you people being eaten by piranhas in 3D. It succeeds on that count. But the violence would have gone down better if it weren’t so confined in mostly that one sequence. And when the movie comes stocked with such charismatic performers like Lloyd and Rhames, Shue and Scott, is it wrong to expect that they be given something to do? They barely have a chance to stretch their genre muscles. Aja has made a movie that’s in the spirit of all kinds of fun, trashy low-budget horror flicks, but he is much more successful at bringing the trashy than making it fun.

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