Why I Love… #119: Piranha 3D

Year: 2010

Director: Alexandre Aja

Stars: Jerry O’Connell, Elisabeth Shue, Kelly Brook

The so-called ‘B-movie’ (the original concept itself long abandoned by cinemas) spins in and out of the modern mainstream with some regularity, usually dependent on some aberration or other hitting it big or creating meme-worthy content. From killer sharks to killer crocs to zombeavers, aquatic menaces have an enduring presence in these marginal movies, as man tries to reconcile ‘his’ anxieties with what lies beneath.

Where once such excursions were sincere explorations of these uncharted depths (Creature from the Black Lagoon; is Jaws the ultimate B-picture?), post-modernism has brought us a perpetually rolling wave of tongue-in-cheek adventures. These have less to do with exploring our fears through metaphor, and much more to do with referencing and playfully reconfiguring past glories.

Few are as riotously successful as Alexandre Aja’s 2010 flick Piranha 3D; a modern exploitation picture par excellence. That it appeared opportunistically within months of James Cameron’s (briefly) game-changing phenomenon Avatar and it’s 3D gimmickry is wholly befitting of a film that gleefully tilts to an audience’s desire for baser, shallow pleasures.

We’re in referential glory from the off as Richard Dreyfuss cameos as a lone fisherman; the first victim of the titular menaces, chewed to pieces in a whirlpool frenzy, his Amity brand beer lolling to the floor of a watering hole in the vicinity of fictional Lake Victoria. This Arizona hot spot is currently in the full swing of Spring Break, and Aja’s picture both panders to and savagely rips apart the leering mentality of drunken jocks on the hunt.

Outside of genuine smut, Eurotrash or the Lads Mag culture it both adores and eviscerates, I’ve never seen a piece of work quite so enamoured with boobs. Bountiful feminine assets preoccupy the camera, and the dialogue. Consider the first meeting between little girl Laura (Brooklynn Proulx) and British stripper and porn actress Danni (Kelly Brook). Danni clocks Laura’s instrument for band practice and offers a friendly, “Nice horn.” Laura, in turn, clocks Danni’s ample cleavage and responds, “Nice boobs”. Danni is very happy with the compliment.

This is an almost wholly isolated instance of female kinship on the subject, however (not counting a certain ‘motorboating’ incident later in act one). More commonly, the women who have flocked to Lake Victoria are catcalled and leered at as they show off their bodies. Aja’s casting continues the lean into the objectified view of things. The aforementioned Brook was, at that time, best known as a popular glamour model, while elsewhere porn star Gianna Michaels makes a brief but memorable appearance as a top-heavy paraglider for whom a loss of altitude has lethal consequences. And then there’s Eli Roth; Aja’s friend and fellow gore-hound, whose lascivious lechery accompanies a doomed wet t-shirt contest. His spitball dialogue here shows more creativity than some of his movies have. Make no mistake, Piranha 3D is as preoccupied as a teenage boy eyeing the top shelf in a corner newsagent. 

In lesser hands this might all come off as so much clumsy or offensively misogynistic toxic waste (see dire sequel Piranha 3DD). But Piranha 3D manages to cultivate an awful lot of goodwill. In part because the wide-eyed wonder of its gawking males often comes off as childishly foolish as opposed to actually predatory, in part because such wonder breeds its own kind of simplistic sincerity (Aja, it seems, really does love boobs), and in part because those who are crassly exploitative here are usually absolutely fucking doomed.

Exhibit A would certainly be Jerry O’Connell’s opportunistic pornographer, Derek. Having roped token nice-lad Jake (Steven R McQueen – yes, son of) onto his yacht to scout some scorching locations for his Spring Break video, Jake’s self-centred mentality comes to the fore. O’Connell relishes the opportunity to play this swine as a total lowlife, while Aja executes an entirely fitting and emasculating end for him (it was some CG animator’s job to draw and steer that 3D severed penis, probably for weeks).

Aja knows what voyeurs of exhibitionist cinema want, and lo, Piranha 3D delivers in spades. While the tense fight for survival on Jake’s sinking yacht is fine enough, the real feast takes place back in the over-populated bay, where Eli Roth’s wet t-shirt competition nosedives into the water and all hell breaks loose.

This section of the film is a splatter masterpiece, combining practical make-up effects and a host of digital work that remains impressive a decade later. The piranhas themselves have the sheen of the unreal, granted – they did then, they do now – but the flailing swimmers being struck by a fleeing motorboat are compelling enough to illicit genuine winces. Not to mention the pièce de résistance; when a poor woman’s ponytail gets caught up in the boat’s engine, causing her to be scalped in a shocking split-second. It’s one of the grimly comic flourishes of 21st century horror cinema.

And its in service of a particular point. Piranha 3D isn’t close to making any thoughtful artistic statements, but there’s a defined critique of humanity happening here, particularly a mentality of selfishness and me-first thinking that results in so many negligent and unnecessary deaths. Watching the film back again, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of all those images flooding in earlier this year of young people celebrating Spring Break, Covid be-damned. The pursuit of hedonism at the expense of all else is beautifully investigated in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers; but here Aja holds up a mirror to our worst inclinations. The result is a scenario in which we literally cannot close our eyes.

Outer edge ‘stunt’ casting of Christopher Lloyd as a screwy biologist gives the sparse ‘that’ll do’ exposition a bit of a lift. Elisabeth Shue’s law enforcer Julie Forester provides a smidgen on credibility. Ving Rhames does a good bit of scenery chewing. Adam Scott’s there. Names like these help bolster Piranha 3D but they’re not what it’s about. The heart of the piece belongs to the youngsters suckered into Jake’s lascivious sex-film cruise. I’m always genuinely sorry to see Danni go. In spite of her limitations as an actor, Brook makes her exceedingly sympathetic; more than just another body on board.

Actually, it’s one of the relatively few instances in which Piranha 3D actually feels cruel. Everyone else… you’re very much encouraged to enjoy their doom. That’s the kind of schlocky picture this is. Danni’s death provides contrast, gives the schadenfreude a modicum of perspective.

But not for long.

In the main, Piranha 3D is the best version of what it’s designed to be; a disposable party movie; a laugh-along riot; a bloody summer slaughterhouse. That it really, really goes for it is in large part thanks to Aja’s winning enthusiasm. This is that rare thing; a well made ‘bad’ movie. Care to take a(nother) dip?

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