It’s been a thoroughly 80s summer. We’ve already seen the throwback action of The A-Team and The Expendables, and the high-kicking return of The Karate Kid. And in the dying days of the sunny season, along swims Piranha 3D, a movie with its fins fully immersed in the decade that subtlety forgot.
A remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 original, which was the better of an entire shoal of low-budget rip-offs that appeared in the wake of Jaws, Piranha 3D replays the exploitative gore and sleaze of late-70s and 80s grindhouse pictures with relish. A 90-minute dervish of bikinis, breasts and blood, director Alexandre Aja’s movie is gleefully, hedonistically salacious and shamelessly gory.
Set among the crystal waters of fictional Lake Victoria during spring break, Piranha 3D is remarkably like Fast And Furious with fish. As thousands of young beach bodies descend on the lake for a seemingly endless party of alcohol and pounding, awful music, an earth tremor disgorges scores of prehistoric flesh-eating critters from their aquatic tomb.
Elisabeth Shue and the mighty Ving Rhames star as Julie and Fallon, two law enforcers charged with the hopeless task of keeping order among the gathering throng of teenagers, while Steven McQueen (grandson of the legendary Steve) plays Julie’s son Jake, who sneaks off to have some fun on porn baron Derrick’s (Jerry O’Connell) yacht when he should be babysitting his horribly bratty younger siblings.
Richard Dreyfuss starts the movie on a high note, as he appears in a brief cameo as an older version of his Jaws character Hooper, and even manages to drunkenly burble Show Me The Way To Go Home before he’s mercilessly torn to shreds by CG fish.
For what is surely the first hour, Aja bides his time, treating the audience to a continuous parade of bare, mostly female flesh before he finally brings on the killer fish. Kelly Brook and Riley Steele play a pair of buxom starlets whose task it is to pass the time until the screaming starts, and spend a lengthy period cavorting naked under water to the strains of Léo Delibes’ The Flower Duet.
Eventually, the blood flows in torrents. In a sustained attack on a beach party, the piranhas – presumably sick of the pounding music – tuck into the waiting horde of cellulite-free revellers with gusto. Eyeballs are nibbled out of sockets, muscle-bound beach hunks are eviscerated, and one unfortunate teen has her entire face pulled off by a boat’s outboard motor.
Between the bloodshed, Christopher Lloyd makes a welcome appearance to give a vague scientific explanation for everything that’s happening, and there’s even a brief cameo from Eli Roth, whose head is crushed between two boats like ripe fruit.
In fact, Piranha 3D boasts a far better cast than a film of its calibre deserves. Frustratingly, Ving Rhames and Elisabeth Shue are barely used, and their attempts to save Lake Victoria’s nibbled swimmers is secondary to the fate of Steven McQueen’s dull character and his equally vapid love interest, Kelly, played by Jessica Szohr. The rest of the cast, broadly speaking, is little more than fish food.
Quite possibly the bloodiest mainstream picture to appear this summer, Piranha 3D’s fountains of gore and prosthetic limbs would be of more consequence if the film were even the slightest bit scary.
Even Aja appears to be unsure whether to direct the film as a straight horror or as camp fluff – the lengthy build-up hints at the former, while the buoyant breasts and messy deaths point decisively to the latter.
The use of 3D, on the other hand, is far more successful than you might expect from a post-production conversion, with plenty of eyeballs and gnashing teeth flying out of the screen at all times.
But after the beach party massacre leaves Lake Victoria a crimson slick of bobbing corpses and weeping, chewed survivors, Piranha 3D’s plot sinks never to resurface. Having apparently thrown all his creativity into the extended dining scene we’ve just witnessed, Aja appears to be directorially spent, leaving the film to drift to a predictable climax that recalls the tedious conclusion of Jaws II.
For connoisseurs of gore, Piranha 3D’s trashy combination of titillation and comic evisceration will make for an entertaining night out at the movies – if the idea of a CG fish puking up a half-chewed penis directly into the screen sounds like a funny gag, this is probably the film you’ve been waiting all summer to see.
For everyone else, Aja’s aquatic horror will prove a predictable, if mercifully brief, bore with jaws.