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Piranha 3D (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

PIRANHA 3D (2010)

Starring Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Jerry O'Connell, Ving Rhames, Steven R. McQueen, Christopher Lloyd, Kelly Brook, Jessica Szohr, Riley Steele, Paul Scheer, Eli Roth, Brooklynn Proulx, Sage Ryan, Ricardo Chavira, Dina Meyer, Cody Longo, Brian Kubach and Richard Dreyfuss.

Screenplay by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg.

Directed by Alexandre Aja.

Distributed by Dimension Films. 88 minutes. Rated R.

French-born director Alexandre Aja has shown himself to be a skilled schlockmeister in his four American films. (I’m counting his last French film, High Tension, which got wide release in the States and opened the door for him to move to the US.)

He has used his trick bag on several horror staples – the mysterious mad slasher (High Tension), the mutant monsters (the remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes) and the haunted house (Mirrors, which was actually about a haunted department store.)

And yet none of Aja’s movies really are as good as the films that inspired him – they are simply much gorier.

Now, with Piranha, Aja works out his need to do a cheesy remake of Jaws. In fact, he even saddles up the last surviving lead of that film – Richard Dreyfuss – to play what is essentially the Susan Backlinie role. (Jaws fanatics will know what that means, but for the rest of you out there, Backlinie played the random first victim who was violently dispatched before the start of the proper story.)

Although, actually, Piranha is not so much a revamp of the Jaws storyline as a rip-off of all the dozens of rip-offs that followed in Jaws’ wake, including Orca, Grizzly and of course most specifically it is a loose remake of a 1978 potboiler called Piranha.

The original Piranha, cheesy as it may be, was actually the work of some very talented filmmakers, director Joe Dante went on to make respected films like Gremlins, Innerspace and Small Soldiers. And, shockingly, the screenplay was by future indie film legend John Sayles (Lone Star, Eight Men Out). Even more shockingly, the original film’s 1981 sequel was directed by James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar). Who knew?

The new Piranha does not take itself at all seriously – and it is kind of likable for its oppressive goofiness. It is sort of like what Jaws would look like if it were filmed by the crew of Girls Gone Wild while on a drunken homicidal bender.

Yet, as has been so obvious with Aja’s past films is even more apparent here. The guy just does not get what was the single most important aspect of making Jaws scary. The monster you see is not nearly as horrifying as the monster you do not see.

While thousands of marauding prehistoric piranhas let loose in a spring break lake is an inherently frightening idea, the mayhem and ripping flesh is so oppressive as to take things over the top. Aja has absolutely no restraint as a director, and it makes his films cartoonish. The violence and sex are dolloped on at such a ridiculous level that it goes way beyond scary into outright parody territory.

While I recognize that was at least partially intended, it just leaves Piranha in a weird netherworld – it is too absurdly gory to be funny for most people and yet too goofy to be legitimately scary.

For example, a head floating into a hole in a boat in Jaws is frightening. Two mutant prehistoric piranhas fighting over a man’s severed penis – well that’s just stupid and not just a little sick. As is a scene where two topless coeds are mistakenly sliced in half by a flying wire. Or the part where a girl’s hair gets caught in a boat propeller.

There is some fine talent here in this potboiler – Elizabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) as the town sheriff, Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction) as her deputy, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) as the local fish expert, Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation) as a scientist and Jerry O’Connell (Stand By Me) as a cheesy Girls Gone Wild-esque video producer.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed the movie more than I do. Through the several years of his career I have always respected Aja’s bad-ass b-movie skills and devil-may-care moxie. However, somebody has to eventually explain to him the importance of occasional subtlety. Until he tones his movies down just a bit, it seems that I will never be able to get his work. Some people can find this kind of over-the-top mayhem funny, but I simply don’t.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: January 15, 2011.

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