Stars: Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Jerry O'Connell, Ving Rhames, Jessica Szohr, Steven R McQueen, Dina Meyer, Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss
While I don't tend to watch a lot of brand new movies in theatres, at least not the mainstream ones, the last week seems to have given me something of a microcosm of the year as a whole. Resident Evil: Afterlife is surely destined to be the worst film of the year and Machete is likely to be the most fun exploitation flick. Piranha may just be the most honest picture because it knows precisely what it is and never for one moment pretends to be anything else. I'd heard that this was a remake of the 1978 Joe Dante Piranha but it really isn't, as much as everyone seems to assume that remakes are all French director Alexandre Aja does nowadays. There may be a few inspirations here and there, but these two Piranha movies really owe more to Jaws than to each other. Dante's was a more direct ripoff of Spielberg's blockbuster hit but it remains the obvious comparison here too, not least because of the very deliberate opening scene.
In Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss played Matt Hooper, an Oceanographic Institute scientist who leads a drunken rendition of Show Me the Way to Go Home while he and his cohorts are waiting for the shark to come back. In Piranha, Dreyfuss plays Matt Boyd, a fisherman who drinks beer and sings Show Me the Way to Go Home while the piranha attack. OK, he isn't drunk and there's only one of him, but if killing him off in the first scene isn't an emphatic hint that writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger aren't interested in rehashing Jaws yet again, I don't know what is. They want to show us lots of piranha, lots of blood and lots of boobies and the usual story would just get in the way. When the monster attacks, the sheriff is supposed to do the right thing, only to be hindered by a greedy businessman or politician until the massacre happens and scientists save the day. Not here. At least Dreyfuss didn't care, as he netted $50,000 for charity before being eaten alive.
He's eaten because of an earthquake, which to be fair is one of the more realistic sparks for films like this. The earthquake opens up a passage between an underground lake and the regular one, Lake Victoria in this instance, though the film was shot on Lake Havasu in Arizona. What was in that underground lake, you might ask. Well, if you did after the last two paragraphs then you're a moron. Prehistoric frickin' piranha, that's what! Oodles and oodles of the things. What do they do when they get into Lake Victoria? Precisely what you think! They do it often enough to make parts of the lake run red too, while all the scantily clad young people cavort around doing what scantily clad young people do on lakes during Spring Break. Yes, of course the piranha arrive at precisely the worst time of the year. That's in the exploitation movie rule book, along with the fact that the ladies have to flash their boobs whenever the camera looks their way.
So we're set for Piranha. Aja adheres to all the rules that tie to exploitation and ignores all the ones that tie to good storytelling. Yes, we have scientists. They get eaten. Yes, the sheriff tries to get everyone out of the lake when the piranha attack. She fails and gives up in seconds. None of that matters when the Girls Gone Wild boat is there. Sorry, this has nothing to do with Girls Gone Wild as Girls Gone Wild mogul Joe Francis is eager to point out. This is all about Wild Wild Girls, who aren't anything like Girls Gone Wild at all except they do precisely the same stuff. 'I get to play Joe Francis!' said Jerry O'Connell, who actually plays Derrick Jones, before clarifying, 'Oh, wait. For legal reasons I'm supposed to say, 'I play someone loosely based on Joe Francis.'' This is just an excuse to give us Kelly Brook and porn star Riley Steele cavorting underwater in the altogether, shot through the glass bottom of the boat. 'Goddess aquatic bitches,' says Derrick.
Jones is a sleazy opportunist who can talk anyone into anything. That's presumably how he gets Jake Forester on board as a location scout and Kelly, the girl Jake would love to be his girlfriend, as someone to do tequila shots off one of the wild wild girls. Jake is a seventeen year old local, a sand rat, who never gets to see much of the 20,000 kids who show up for Spring Break because his single mother is the sheriff who is kept more than busy with those 20,000 kids, thus leaving him to babysit his little sister Laura and his little brother Zane. One look at Danni's ample bosom and he buys off the kids with his forty bucks of babysitting money and a twenty buck deception surcharge so he can make the Wild Wild Girls boat. Yep, those little kids are precocious. Yep, he doesn't care. You can write the rest of the story yourself, except perhaps for the surprising fact that the naked underwater cavorting is set to opera. Got to be one surprise, right?
There are some very recognisable names here. Sheriff Julie Forester is Elisabeth Shue, this time giving her screen son an adventure in babysitting. Shue acquits herself well though she's given almost nothing to do except show how good she is at shimmying down a rope with eager piranha snapping at her from below. She's more like Chief Brody's spare deputy than Chief Brody, as all she gets to do is sail the seismologist divers from the US Geological Survey to their doom and be ignored by everyone else. Her Deputy Fallon is Ving Rhames, who is used even less than Shue, so much so that I didn't even realise he was in the movie until it was his turn to get eaten. Eli Roth is a memorable wet T-shirt host as subtle as you might expect for a wet T-shirt host with a black DJ called Chocolate Thunder. There's even Christopher Lloyd in full on 'Great Scott!' mode as the local expert on prehistoric piranha who have been extinct for two million years.
In fact none of these capable actors are used in the slightest. They're merely more props for the filmmakers to play with, just like the awesome fish tanks that I'd steal from Christopher Lloyd's character if only I didn't believe he could go back in time and stop me from being born. The only character really given any chance to develop is Jake Forester, played by Steven R McQueen, the grandson of Steve McQueen and his first wife Neale Adams, who is currently the outsider in TV's The Vampire Diaries. He isn't bad as Jake but he's utterly overshadowed by Jerry O'Connell who steals the entire film, or at least the entirety of the film that doesn't have piranha or boobs on the screen. He may be 'the other guy' in Stand By Me but he's managed to build an interesting career nonetheless and while this is hardly the greatest film in his resume, it's a peach of a part for him and he has a riot with it. We almost sympathise anyway when he loses his penis.
The biggest success in this film, though, is not the acting and it's certainly not the script. I can't remember the last time I watched a mainstream horror movie and was impressed by the effects. Here they are consistently excellent and occasionally shine so brightly that I couldn't help but take serious note. When the inevitable massacre happens and thousands of piranha take on hundreds of partygoers in the lake, everyone seems to be set up with an effect. Corpses litter the water, some face down, and they look real. Everyone who gets out seems to have a realistic wound of some kind to show off. Some are killed in memorable ways. I loved the subtle whiplash shot in and amongst the chaos, a woman falling prey to the buckling and toppling of the Dying to Get Wet platform, whose name becomes ironically true. Another literally falls apart while being carried out of the water. One topless paraglider dips once too often and comes out bottomless.
The only real problem with the effects is that piranha are supposed to strip their food to the bone in scarily short amounts of time, something that rarely happens here. Skeletons just don't give the opportunity for the sort of awesome wounds the effects folk on this film are so good at, so these piranha treat the human race like a sort of buffet lunch, taking a chunk here and there and then moving on to someone else. To boost the victims, there's even an amazing scene where a selfish Spring Breaker tries to get away from the flotilla of killer fish in a speedboat, even though he's hemmed in by partygoers left and right. He runs them over in his quest to get away until the engine dies and they take him down. The partiers, not the piranha. The effects dominate this film, though there's also some good underwater photography, a bevy of beauties who appear to have some sort of allergic reaction to bikini tops and, most of all, a wealth of fun.