Saturday, February 19, 2011

“This is what it’s all about. Beer, sun, and naked honeys making out underwater!”

It has been over nine months since I posted here. Children have been conceived and born since the OM was last up and running. It's been a sad, sad state of affairs around these parts. But thankfully, as he has done in the past, my brother Brad has resurrected the OM with a tempting offer of yet another OMvBLDPFMBoSD. On the table this time around? Piranha 3D, now in glorious 2D in my living room! So after you're done reading my (much more insightful and better written) take, be sure to check out Brad's.

Spring Break has descended on the small, usually sleepy Lake Victoria, overrunning the town with bikini-clad coeds and shirtless meatheads partying and boozing. A good orgiastic time was had by all. The end. Oh wait, not so fast. It seems a local earthquake has cracked open the lake bottom, opening a fissure into an enormous, previously isolated and self-contained underground lake, releasing countless vicious prehistoric piranhas intent on feasting upon the hordes of oblivious revelers. Then a good orgiastic time is had by all.

Director Alexandre Aja built his reputation as part of the vanguard of extreme French horror (e.g., Inside, Frontier(s), and most notoriously Martyrs) with his 2003 film Haute Tension (a film whose merits Brad and I adamantly disagreed about). Although Piranha is Aja's 3rd English language film, after his The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors remakes, it is a marked tonal departure from his previous movies. Rather than the oppressively grim, nihilism of his previous movies, Piranha was clearly always meant to be campy, exploitative trash, more intent on having visceral fun than hammering the audience with dehumanizing brutality. Piranha is replete with near constant nudity and exaggerated, pretty silly, albeit still very graphic, violence.

Overall, Piranha is almost exactly what I was expecting it to be, but it was still a bit disappointing. My initial reaction was somewhat reminiscent of my reaction to Hostel, though I liked Piranha much more. I think there's an inherent problem with trying to make an intentionally campy exploitation movie. Sometimes a film, by pure accident, slips from the realm of bad to stupidly and entertainingly insane. But attempts to recreate that phenomenon on purpose usually rob the subsequent film of an earnestness that is often a necessary and organic part of its appeal. Essentially, too much self-awareness can doom a project like Piranha. Although Piranha is definitely not "doomed" by self-awareness, it is hobbled by it. For whatever reason, I didn't care for the Richard Dreyfuss cameo at the beginning, and a scene in which Ving Rhames uses a boat motor as a weapon was more a rip-off than wink towards Dead Alive. Christopher Lloyd's appearance as a manic marine biologist was great fun, though.

Speaking of the cast, Piranha sports a pretty impressive roster. It's always great to see Elizabeth Shue, here as Lake Victoria's sheriff (she seriously needs to get more and better work; she was easily the best part of Leaving Las Vegas, outshining Nicholas Cage's Oscar-winning but painfully one-note performance). Adam Scott is an actor on the ascent that I always like seeing, and he's good here as a seismologist/general man of action. Jerry O'Connell appears as a Joe Francis (of Girls Gone Wild and general terrible human being fame) surrogate, and while I don't much care for O'Connell, his admittedly one-dimensional performance is played to the nines and a lot of fun. Everyone seems very game for the very over-top silliness of the movie. Including a cameo by Eli Roth as the host of a wet T-shirt contest, that's really only worth mentioning to point out that at one point he calls a woman's breasts her "Danny DeVitos."

All that being said, Piranha is an entertaining, trashy good time. For all of its problems, Piranha does succeed in its essential mission, to cram as much sex, violence, and superficial fun into a lean 88 minutes as humanly possible. The aforementioned violence varies greatly in quality, entirely dependent on whether Aja is utilizing CGI (which is embarrassingly bad) or practical effects (which are extremely gory and overall pretty impressive). Especially during the central set-piece of the movie, a pretty astoundingly prolonged scene of the piranhas' attack on the party-goers. For instance, an initially great effect (that loses a lot of its impact due to its repeated use) is when someone is attacked in the water and then pulled out to reveal their limbs have been reduced to skinny, bloody bones, held together by a minimal amount of flesh. (The first few times this happens, it's a great use of practical special effects and an effective reveal. After a while, all it did was remind me of that old Titannica sketch from Mr. Show.) Piranha does its job of providing a number of memorable kills, such as an attack victim splitting in half as she is being carried out of the lake by two cops and (in my opinion the most cringe inducing) a woman getting her hair tangled in a boat propeller. And I have to admit, the very strange extended nude underwater ballet scene was something I have never seen before. Made all the stranger by characters' constant insistence that it was "so hot."

I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the 3D elements. Piranha was filmed in 2D and post-converted (as opposed to having been filmed with 3D cameras a la Avatar), but was always planned to be 3D. And the "it's coming right at me" moments are pretty obvious to pick out. There are a lot of piranhas that turn and snap at the camera, a couple of scenes of fast moving piranha-vision, and at least one moment of a girl puking directly at the camera. Probably the most notorious moment in Piranha is Jerry O'Connell's death, in which the piranhas devour the lower half of his body, including "taking [his] penis." Cut to a shot of a piranha swimming up to you and regurgitating said half-digested penis. I'm sure seeing this movie in the theaters in 3D would have amped up its trashy appeal, but I'm not sure that it would have been worth all the extra money.

Overall, Piranha 3D gave me pretty much exactly what I was looking for. While it wasn't overly satisfying, it still provided a pretty substanceless good time. This is very much the cinematic equivalent of junk food, plenty of empty calories with absolutely no nutritional value.

[EDIT: In true OM fashion, this has been up for less than an hour, and I've already had to fix a couple of typos.]