Before you even read this sentence, you are already incredulous. Five stars? For Piranha 3D? What sort of staff writer is this? How could you compare this movie with the cinematic greats of the past? This rating is meaningless, you might think, and so now I must spend the rest of this review convincing you.
As a brief aside, my opinion is that a star rating should not reflect how a movie sits in the annals of cinematic history. If that were the case, we’d never see anything more than three stars, perhaps. Instead, we should look at it as a rating of how well a movie accomplishes what it has set out to do. In this case, Piranha 3D does it perfectly.
Let’s start with the age rating. This is an R-rated film, for sex and violence, and it delivers both in near-alarming droves. Why is this so shocking? Blame the last decade, where PG-13 movies such as The Ring made a bunch of money by being rated PG-13, and thus being accessible to teenagers, while also omitting much of the sex and violence. In conjunction with this, these movies also attempted to be deadly serious, asking us to accept the most outlandish of protagonists with a straight face.
Now, I enjoy a movie that takes itself seriously as much as the next, but this doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Indeed, Piranha 3D embraces the ludicrousness of its setup with a rabid zeal. It’s about two hundred million year-old piranhas who emerge to terrorize college kids at Spring Break on an Arizona lake. We expect with this setup that the questionable morals of these kids will be punished by this monstrous plague, and we are not disappointed.
This concept is certainly not a new idea, as horror films have long made their mark having their campy killers punish the kids who engage in immoral behavior. Think about Camp Crystal Lake and Jason Vorhees. What buried this idea for a while were the Scream films, which lampooned all of those then-tired clichés. And so we all suffered for years with films under the banner of “psychological horror,” many of which were pale shadows of the Asian horror films they were remaking.
What these films forgot, and Piranha 3D remembers, is that horror films can be funny and horrifying, often in the same scene. Much of the initial humor is driven by Jerry O’Connell, who appears as a Girls-Gone-Wild inspired impresario named Derrick Jones. Derrick has come to the lake to convince underage drunken girls to remove their tops by plying them with alcohol and the promise of cheap fame. Indeed, he often succeeds and we witness the results in ridiculous 3D.
How Derrick receives his come-uppance is not suitable for printing in the Technique, but rest assured that it is completely appropriate.
Coming along with Derrick are a couple of innocent teens who are offered a job to show Derrick the “hot spots” around the lake. These two are almost completely devoid of characterization, and this is largely the point. No one is characterized beyond the bare minimum of necessary exposition. Hence, we can project our own hated foes on the villains, and let our moral selves fill the heroes. Most of these heroes live. The rest get chomped, and you will cheer it on.
Besides the main characters, a large portion of Piranha 3D follows a huge slew of Spring Break revelers, whose like have long invaded MTV with their role-playing as college partiers. They do so much of these things because they feel like it is what they are supposed to do. Screw authority, they proclaim, as they flip off the authorities and jump in the water when they are told to evacuate the lake. You can guess what happens next.
Why is this so enjoyable? Give the credit to the excellent pacing and tension maintained by the director, Alexandre Aja, who clearly knows exactly what he is doing. For much of the first hour, we don’t see much of the piranha beyond a feeding frenzy in the movie’s opening moments. Instead, the fallout of their frenzy is seen, building the creatures up until they finally unleash themselves on the crowd. It’s perfectly done. Less is more, and then more is piled upon more until you feel you have gotten far too much. Restraint is in small supply with Piranha 3D, and this is a good thing.
Why is the lack of restraint great? Because this is a movie shot with 3D cameras. Every terrible moment found in prior horror movies finds new life in the 3D format, particularly when the properties of water are used. It supplies a depth to the image that was found in Step Up 3D and was missing in post-production 2D to 3D conversions such as Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans.
When chunks are torn away, you can see the resulting negative space where there was once a limb It makes the carnage more realistic, to be sure, but it also manages to make it more hilarious somehow. The hyper-realism makes it even more unreal. The Saturday night audience I viewed this with was screaming, but they were also laughing. The tone of the film manages this tricky balance, which lets you enjoy both in equal measure. That is, if you are into this sort of thing.
As such, I’ll state the obvious and say that this is not a film for everyone. If you are squeamish in the slightest, you will want to stay far, far away from Piranha 3D. Go see Step Up 3D instead.
They could use the bucks. However, if you enjoy a heaping dose of satire and yearn for the days when low-budget horror films could manage to have a little fun, you will thoroughly enjoy this. This is Evil Dead 2 levels of funny, people.