Piranha (2010) (DVD)

There’s something in the water.

You know that one guy who thinks he’s the coolest guy around and is the life of the party, but is really just annoying? The one who believes that everyone’s laughing at his jokes when they’re not? The one who thinks we are all thrilled to see him, but were’re really groaning at the thought of him approaching? The 2010 remake of Piranha is the movie equivalent of that guy.

It’s spring break Lake Victoria, and hundreds of horny college students have converged at the lake for a week of non-stop partying. Unfortunately, a recent earthquake has unleashed thousands of prehistoric piranhas from deep underground. These fishies are hungry and aggressive, and quickly begin munching on any hapless humans they come across. The local sheriff (Elizabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas) tries to maintain order, while her son (Steven R. McQueen, The Vampire Diaries), heads off on a party boat, only to get it stuck on some rocks in the middle of the lake. Mom tries to rescue her son while the piranhas turn spring break into their personal all-you-can-eat buffet.

The idea here is that the filmmakers are in the joke. There’s this attitude throughout the whole movie of “Hee, hee, look at us, we’re making a trashy horror movie!” The sleaze is palatable; with gore, nudity, and lowbrow behavior from start to end. The filmmakers, however, know that this is a flick with gore, nudity, and lowbrow behavior; so they’re amping up these elements on purpose. They’re hoping to recreate the feeling of an old school 1980s horror-comedy, but the big difference is that this one is far more self-aware than those beloved cult classics ever were.

The first big piranha attack, within the first few minutes, has some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen Play-Mate of the Apes. Everything during the underwater attack has this overly clean, undetailed look. That’s when I remembered that the movie ran in 3-D in theaters. As such, the big 3-D moments, now scaled down into 2-D for the home screen, look blocky and unfinished. There are a lot of these former 3-D shots, mostly involving stuff floating around underwater. Perhaps these were impressive on the big screen, but at home they only stand out because of how clunky they look.

Although the movie zips along at a quick pace, things still get uninteresting when dealing with the human characters. Everyone is either bland or grossly unlikable. Elizabeth Shue and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction) barely register as the tough cops. Our hero, the cop’s son, is less relatable and more unlikable. He lies to his mom, he lies to the girl crushing on him, he treats his younger siblings like crap, and he’s the one we’re supposed to root for. Jerry O’Connell (Sliders) gets considerable screentime as the ribald pornographer running the party boat, and his “horny alpha male” shtick overstays its welcome almost immediately. The joke here is that he’s such an obnoxious jerk that we’re supposed to cheer when he finally gets his comeuppance at the fangs of the piranhas, but it’s a long haul before we get there.

Also, how about all those cameos? Richard Dreyfuss shows up as a character with remarkable similarities to his character from Jaws. Whether it’s the same character has been the subject of much debate and speculation online. I’m fine with calling it a reference to Spielberg’s blockbuster, and leaving it at that. Christopher Lloyd tries really, really hard to recapture the manic energy he brought to the Back to the Future and The Addams Family franchises, but it’s just not the same. Genre mainstay Dina Meyer is barely recognizable as a marine biologist. Fratboy filmmaker Eli Roth (Hostel) embarrasses himself—no small task for him—in his cameo as, of course, the host of a wet T-shirt contest. Also, a whole slew of well-known adult film “actors” were cast just to show off their naughty parts.

Is anything good here? The movie’s centerpiece, in which the piranhas unleash hell onto hundreds of spring breakers, features numerous practical gore effects courtesy of Greg Nicotero and the folks from KNB. The practical stuff is great, and gorehounds will delight at the over-the-top blood carnage on display. Considering the rest of the movie, though, it’s more like watching an effects reel, with one great gore gag after another, as opposed to working these effects into the story in any kind of way.

The DVD shows off all these bright outdoor colors and red blood in a solid transfer—perhaps it’s too good of a transfer considering how unpolished the 3-D scenes look. The audio is serviceable, at its best when the pumping tunes start playing. For extras, we’ve got a self-congratulatory commentary with director Alexandre Aja (High Tension), and a surprisingly thorough behind-the-scenes featurette that covers all aspects of the production. There is no option to watch it in 3-D at home. I know 3-D on TV is still hit or miss tech these days, but it’s one of the big selling points for the flick, and home viewers are missing out on a big part of the experience.

Supporters of this film have argued that it’s not so much a movie, but a “thrill ride” experience. I don’t buy that. Most of the low-budget horror “classics” of the 1980s might not be good films in the classic cinema sense, but that have an earnestness to them that’s hard to replicate. This movie doesn’t even try that. Instead, its constant self-aware, wink-at-the-camera attitude makes it unwatchable.

The Verdict

This Piranha lacks bite. Guilty.

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