Friday, November 5, 2010
Piranha 3D (2010, Alexandre Aja)
Is there anything more foolish and dispiriting than being disappointed by a film for which you had low expectations, but also wanted very much to like?
Piranha 3D already had my money a good year before I even put on my 3D glasses, and the sheer anticipation provoked retrospectives of the entire Piranha series spread across two episodes of An Alan Smithee Podcast. The newest film follows the franchise tradition of creative schizophrenia over making a dumb monster movie with a knowing wink. This is the inheritance of the original film's screenwriter John Sayles imbuing all the stock monster movie characters with personality and director Joe Dante casting good actors to charmingly deadpan the absurdity of what was in 1978 already a familiarly hokey setup and obvious cash-in by Roger Corman on Jaws.
Piranha 3D's failure is more complex than the sweaty 1981 sequel or the joyless 1995 TV remake. Between the cast, director special effects and even the basic scenario, this could have been the worthy follow-up to Piranha 32 years later. Unfortunately, Aja seems to have taken the job for the proximity to boobs. Screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg of Sorority Row and Good Luck Chuck, respectively, are only too happy to supply him with obnoxious hotties. Like his contemporary Eli Roth, Aja seems to believe that horror movie audiences love to feel contempt for their teen meat before the butchering or feeding frenzy commences. His conception of a dumb-fun horror flick invites us to first ogle Spring Break sluts, then cheer their demise as a kind of puritanical punishment for lacking modesty. This is like being the high school nerd who fantasizes about screwing the hot cheerleader one minute and pictures her on the business end of Jason's machete the next, except that your average Friday the 13th movie has more empathy for the indiscretions of horny teenagers than this one ever shows. The original film had a mean streak, but was at its core a fun romp. The new version has the dressings of a fun romp but at the core is just plain mean-spirited.
Piranha 3D appeals mainly to horny misogynists and gorehounds in that order. As a full time member only of the latter camp, I'm sad to say that while the offerings are better than average they don't compensate for the opportunities botched or missed while catering to the first camp.
One of the original Piranha's quirks, which would soon be revealed as a Joe Dante trademark, was the casting of genre b-movie favorites like Barbara Steele, Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller. On paper, Piranha 3D seemed to be attenuated to this choice, giving supporting roles to eclectic people like comedian Paul Scheer, a long-missed Christopher Lloyd (drawing audience cheers,) Eli Roth (natch,) and Richard Dreyfuss (geddit?). Top billing goes to Elizabeth Shue and Ving Rhames. Unfortunately, that's not really the case. The main characters in terms of screen time are Steven R. McQueen as Shue's son, Jessica Szohr as the vapid Spring Breaker he wants to bone, and Jerry O'Connell as the "Girls Gone Wild" type producer who takes them both along on his boat for some videotaped teensploitation. O'Connell is actually funny in his manic sleaziness, yet Aja is constantly offsetting our derisive chuckles by implicating us as viewers of many, many bikini girls and bringing us down to his level. This hypocrisy feels too oblivious to be intentional.
Our intended sympathy for McQueen appears to be based on his desire for Jessica Szohr, a longing for which he's willing to abandon babysitting his two younger siblings and get them stranded on an island from which he then has to rescue them. Since he and Szohr already know what O'Connell's pervy motives are, any way you look at his decisions he comes off as selfish, irresponsible and uncaring that his would-be girlfriend doesn't mind acting like a whore for O'Connell. Ironically, McQueen is such a weasel and simp throughout the whole film that O'Connell's brash honesty about the same base horndog motivations they share makes him more likable. He's certainly funnier in his awfulness. Objectifying teen meat and then expecting the audience to invest emotionally in a couple slabs is a bad idea.
Meanwhile, Shue and Rhames' natural charisma is wasted on dull exposition beats: they find the piranha's first victim, they go talk to Chris Lloyd, they warn the partying teenagers to get out of the water. Even at the climax when Shue has to rescue her son and his slutty crush from O'Connell's sinking boat, the focus remains on McQueen. I was rooting so hard for those piranha to get him, or at least Szohr. Switching the ratio of attention between the teens and adults could have saved this movie, even with the inane dialogue. If Chris Lloyd had been given more than one and a half scenes, he could've sold as many bad lines as they'd give him. Then again, when Adam Scott (of the criminally cancelled Showtime series Party Down) shows up, he's visibly bored by the script and can't even read his lines convincingly, something I'm convinced the native French speaking Aja doesn't particularly notice or care about.
At least the piranha eventually get their due, a little past the halfway mark. Greg Nicotero elaborates on Rob Bottin's grisly aftermath makeup from the original and comes up with some suitably disgusting looking chomped flesh, including a memorably horrific full body view of O'Connell after he's pulled from the water. There's a good missing-legs gag stolen from John Sayles' other killer animal flick Alligator (1980, Lewis Teague) and a seamlessly CG enhanced gag involving a wounded swimmer breaking in half. Since fish are hairless, skinless and fluidly moving creatures, the CG piranha don't look all bad - except for a stupid gag when one chokes up a CG dick. They're the only part of the film to really benefit from being in 3D, unless you bought your ticket for a preview of the soft core porn we'll someday be able to stream to our 3D TVs. The other three standout gore moments could've gone into any film with or without piranha, but a modern mainstream horror film trying for more than a couple such moments is commendable in these splatter starved times. Aja acquits himself in viscera department but it would've been nice to care about any of the victims, who are hateful even in their panic.
According to IMDB, Chuck Russell was originally to direct this film and contributed to the script before Aja took over. The director of A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 and the 1988 remake of The Blob definitely knows what genre fans like, so I'm going to assume the various similarities between the original Piranha and this one were more his doing than Goldfinger and Stolberg: the opening shot of a sign warning swimmers, the double climax of an outdoor event massacre and the rescue of children elsewhere, the final escape from piranha via rope around the waist attached to a speedboat. Aja and his screenwriters don't seem to be particular fans of Piranha, or maybe just the idea of character development. The film's first half favors boobs and jerks over blood so much that I was nearly demoralized by the time the piranha got to attack en masse. What about Ving Rhames' character motivated him to sacrifice his life against the piranha? Would have been nice to know. Even without sympathetic characters, a few kills in the first 40 minutes would have compensated a lot for the film giving its best assets the short shrift in favor of asses. All the right ingredients were in place and Aja almost completely blew them.
The opening cameo by Richard Dreyfuss kind of encapsulates the nature of the whole film: the guy from Jaws gets eaten by piranha, but they don't really trust you to recognize the guy from Jaws without having him singing the same song he sang and wearing the same clothes. Piranha 3D aims to be a smart "dumb movie" but ultimately doesn't believe there are any smart people in the audience deserving of the effort. While not a total waste, this film could've been so much more. At least the announced sequel from John Gulager of the "Feast" trilogy will probably give papa Clu a worthy amount of scenes.