Film Review: Piranha 3D

Silliness reigns in Alexandre Aja’s agreeably cartoonish remake of the ’70s exploitation picture.

One could, I suppose, pen a critique of Piranha 3D that lambasts the film as a crude, obnoxious piece of exploitative trash. But that kind of scathing notice would probably be taken as a compliment by director Alexandre Aja and the merry band of pranksters behind this slicked-up, dumbed-down remake of the 1978 Roger Corman-produced, Joe Dante-helmed, John Sayles-penned Jaws knockoff. Besides, it seems churlish to tear apart a movie that’s so relentlessly…well, nice.

Despite the copious amount of gore and gratuitous T&A on display here, Piranha 3D is about as transgressive and outré as that Miley Cyrus video where she donned a black leather ensemble and warned folks that she couldn’t be tamed. There’s none of the cruel sadism or pointed, if clumsy, social commentary that’s often on display in vintage exploitation movies; Piranha 3D is just big, loud, goofy fun. Like an overeager puppy, its only desire is to please moviegeors by giving them what they want. (Or, at least, what the filmmakers think that moviegoers want. Judging by the film’s disappointing $9.7 million opening-weekend gross, audiences weren’t actually all that eager to plunk down $17 for a 3D-enhanced horror comedy about man-eating fish.)

Aja announces his intentions in the very first scene, which features Richard “Did the Check Clear? Okay, Action!” Dreyfuss—who is shown sporting the same duds and singing the same sea shanty as his Jaws character—being torn to shreds by a pack of piranhas. Cut to the sun-dappled resort town of Lake Victoria, where that annual bacchanal known as Spring Break is in full swing. With tedious efficiency, we’re introduced to the remaining cast of fish food…uh, I mean characters. There’s the town sheriff (Elisabeth Shue), her horny teenage son (Steven R. McQueen) and the local hottie he worships from afar (Jessica Szohr) but can’t work up the courage to ask out on a date. Also in the mix is the entrepreneur behind a “Girls Gone Wild”-like line of soft-core videos (Jerry O’Connell), the busty stars of his latest opus (porn thespian Riley Steele and British babe Kelly Brook, whose gravity-defying body is the movie’s most stimulating special effect) and a poker-faced scientist (Adam Scott) investigating strange “seismic activity” in the area.

Naturally, that seismic activity is connected to the sudden emergence of the titular monsters, which had previously been trapped beneath Lake Victoria since prehistoric times. Unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace, these hungry fish are soon dining on fresh college-age flesh while the heroes struggle to keep themselves off the menu.

In almost every respect, Piranha 3D is Aja’s sloppiest movie to date, lacking the formal elegance of High Tension and the compelling bleakness of his Hills Have Eyes remake. (Let’s just pretend that the misconceived Mirrors never happened.) On the other hand, it’s a heck of a lot funnier than his previous efforts, even if the gags rarely rise above a frat-boy mentality. (The movie’s prevailing sense of humor is best encapsulated by a scene in which a piranha devours a stacked victim, leaving only a pair of silicone implants behind.) With its exaggerated violence and CGI-created critters—who more closely resemble Looney Tunes characters than actual piranhas—Piranha 3D is as much a cartoon as this summer’s other animated offerings, including Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me, both of which plumb emotional depths that Aja frankly couldn’t care less about.

Fortunately for them, the actors are all in on the gag and walk through the movie with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks; Shue and Scott in particular seem to be having a good time, although O’Connell too often overdoes it as the sleazy porn merchant.

Unapologetically silly, Piranha 3D aims low and mostly succeeds within its limited ambitions. And that’s a review the filmmakers would probably agree with.