Today I went to see Piranha 3D with good expectations, but left with a bittersweet feeling. The sweet part was the over the top violence, the Richard Dreyfuss cameo, and the unapologetically gratuitous nudity courtesy of some real-life porn stars. The bitter part was realizing that I had paid to watch innocent people get butchered for my own entertainment.
Just as the title indicates, this movie is about piranhas who swim at the audience in 3D. It is spring break in the fictional town of Lake Victoria and thousands of college and high school kids have invaded the town for beer, fun in the sun, and sex. This gives Sheriff Julie Foster (Elizabeth Shue) and Deputy Fallon a major headache, but little do they know that a recent earthquake has opened a crack in their lake, allowing million-year old piranhas to feast on anything that moves in the lake.
Also out on the lake that week-end is Foster’s son Jake (Steven R. McQueen) who is giving a tour of the lake to a sleazy producer of a popular porn site called “Wild Wild Girls” (think Girls Gone Wild). The producer (Jerry O’Connell) convinces Kelly, Jake’s old crush from high school to also come on their boat but Jake insists that it doesn’t bother him since she is not his girlfriend. Right.
Thin plot aside, the real show is the people getting attacked by piranhas, the wet t-shirt contests, and two porn stars swimming naked under water. It’s all there, and well done. People die in extremely gruesome ways: limbs are ripped apart, eyeballs are eaten, heads are crushed, and a piranha actually eats its way through a woman’s chest and then out through her mouth. Real-life piranhas are probably not that vicious (or that hungry for that matter) but Christopher Lloyd shows up as fish expert to explain that these particular piranhas are the original ones from millions of years ago. This explanation, coming from the actor who explained how the flux capacitor in “Back to the Future” works, makes the movie worthwhile for any film lover.
So, as far as adhering to the b-movie genre the film succeeds at being what it wants to be. My big problem is the scenes where people walk out of the water bleeding severely from flesh wounds and literally falling to pieces. There are great moments of tension before they get eaten alive, and some people get eaten in funny and inventive ways but I have a really hard time watching dozens of people suffering for my own entertainment. I know, I know, it’s only a movie, the fish are just animated images, and no actor got hurt, they were only pretending to die painfully. But, when those kids were walking away from that slaughter, I wasn’t laughing I was feeling sorry for them.
Over the top violence works better when the violence is aimed at characters who have it coming. This is why a television show like Dexter is successful. Dexter Morgan tries to kill people who deserve to die, hence it is a guilty pleasure for the audience when he butchers a bad guy. So, when Jerry O’Connell’s sleazy character gets what’s coming to him, I can cheer for that. What I have a hard time cheering for is the sight of an innocent young woman getting half of her face ripped off because her hair got caught in a speedboat’s propeller and the douche bag driving it kept trying to restart the engine. Somehow, I just can’t laugh at that image.
I have read that for the sequel the producers will have the audience vote for which celebrity they want to see get eaten by piranhas. I can be pretty cynical when I want to, but isn’t that going a bit too far? I don’t think anybody should hate a person so much that they would like to see them get eaten alive. O.K, perhaps Osama Bin Laden, but the cast of Jersey Shore? Really? If they annoy you that much, do what I do: don’t watch them. No need to fantasize about watching them get brutally munched to death.
Maybe I am being hypocritical since I have enjoyed movies like “Snakes on a Plane” and “Jurassic Park” where people also get eaten or bitten to death. In my defence, the first time I saw “Jurassic Park” I didn’t really enjoy seeing people die, but then again I was seven at the time so I probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. As for “Snakes on a Plane” I would argue that once the people got bitten by the snakes, they would either pass out or die instantly. Whereas with the piranhas, once they would chew off a girl’s flesh they would keep on biting and biting and biting while she was screaming. By the fifth bite I was hoping the character had bled to death and was out of her misery all ready.