After Snakes on a Plane seemingly launched its own category of horror film, the laughably bad horror thriller, a number of films have tried to jump on that film’s style while trying to better its modest box office grosses. Piranha 3D is a remake of the 1978 Roger Corman produced spoof of Jaws but with a bigger budget and enough nudity to satisfy an R-rated teen sex comedy.
Sherriff and single mother Julie Foster (Elisabeth Shue) is in the middle of a seemingly normal Spring Break week in her small town set off a fictionalized Lake Havasu, Arizona: 20,000 co-eds have turned up to turn the place upside down in a frenzy of alcoholic bliss. But she has a bit of a problem as millennia old killer Piranha have become unlocked from their subterranean lake prison and have set their sights on the city-sized party. It’s up to her to save the day and prevent the body count from rising.
While the original certainly wasn’t a classic, or even very good, there’s a level of awful coming out of this film in the same manner as Snakes on a Plane in that everything is intentionally over the top from the violence to the acting. This is a film meant to be awful from the beginning and with no hesitation about it. There must be something freeing about being in a bad film and given a green light to go completely over the top for an actor because this has a remarkably high profile cast for a film of this type. As such everyone seems to be aiming for the goofiest performance to stand out amongst the carnage and Elisabeth Shue’s aping of every poor imitation of Die Hard protagonist John McLane in the DTV market.
The one that stands out the most is Christopher Lloyd of Taxi and Back to the Future fame. Given a ridiculous character as the resident aquatic expert, Lloyd takes the inherent goofiness of his usual typecast roles and turns up the volume as Mr. Goodman is beyond ridiculous. Lloyd is so remarkably over the top that it helps set the film’s tone early on; before his appearance the film has a more serious and subdued vibe amidst the usual shenanigans involved in a film revolving around college kids and Spring Break. After Lloyd’s hurricane style performance that counts as the bulk of the film’s exposition, Piranha 3D almost immediately goes completely over the top in its ridiculousness. This isn’t completely over the top in trying to keep a film from falling flat on its face; it’s over the top awful in nearly every way. And this is where the film falls flat on its face, as well.
It’s a hard balancing act, keeping a film of this nature from being so ridiculous that it loses itself, and that’s where genre veteran Alexandre Aja seems to lose his grip. A film like Snakes on a Plane, which this film emulates in style, managed to keep the tone of the film serious while all the craziness happened. That’s part of the film’s allure, as well as its Rocky Horror style viewing atmosphere, and Aja doesn’t seem to have that sort of grasp on this film to keep it from being nothing more than an interesting use of 3D than anything else. Considering his prior work, which included High Tension and the surprisingly effective remake of The Hills Have Eyes, this is definitely a step back as a story-teller. Those films showed off a visual flair that is missing here; this is designed to be an overzealous b-movie but without the zeal.
The one thing it does phenomenally well is it’s used of 3D, which is one of the stronger films to use the conversion process after being shot in regular 2D this year. Shot as a 3D film, but without the 3D cameras, the film uses the 3D format surprisingly well. This is a film designed for the format, not converted to it to boost box office receipts, and as such there are plenty of moments enhanced in the viewing experience because of it. It heightens the tension because there’s so much more going on visually, even if the film squanders it away with just how overtly bad it is.
This is a film with bad material done poorly as opposed to bad material done zealously, which is the difference between Piranha 3D and the Samuel L Jackson helmed film. This is a film that celebrates its noxiousness as opposed to trying to turn schlock material into Shakespeare. It settles into mediocrity, as its visuals and ability to generate tension balance out its inability to do anything else.
Director: Alexandre Aja Notable Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Adam Scott, Jerry O’Connell, Ving Rhames, Steven R. McQueen, Christopher Lloyd, Jessica Szohr, Richard Dreyfuss Writer(s): Pete Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg, Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur based off of “Piranha” by John Sayles (1978)