Films rarely deliver on the promises of their trailers. Even their synopses can indicate a promise of something the final film has a problem making truly happen. Some movies come close, others fail miserably, and others deliver a different experience entirely. Piranha 3D is the rare film the delivers exactly what the trailers, synopses and every ounce of marketing promises buckets of blood, campy humour and boobs lots and lots of boobs.
The plot, or what little semblance there is, revolves around the small town of Lake Victoria, which explodes with activity every Spring Break. An earthquake tremor shatters the lake's floor, and lets loose hundreds of prehistoric piranha. And as the trailer suggests, not even local Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) can stop the mayhem in store for the unlucky college students and residents who venture into the water.
Despite a rather threadbare plot, Piranha 3D survives on an alternating scale of maniacal destruction and sheer glee. It is clear from the opening moments of the film that Alexandre Aja is having loads of fun creating this throwback monster movie. And in a year where just about everything seems like a nostalgic reference to films from other decades (specifically the 1980s), Piranha 3D fits right in. It makes no argument about the type of film it is at any point. It knows it is not going to be the next Schindler's List, and it knows it has no chance of even remotely being a "good movie". What it strives for, especially if you are the right audience for it, is to be the funnest film of the summer. After all, this is a movie that makes a joke about a severed CGI penis.
The film is fun for the sheer fact that Aja does not seem to care about the line between good and bad taste. The aforementioned severed penis aside, there are quite literally hundreds of people who are murdered by these prehistoric killers by the time the film reaches its credits. And Aja just seems to revel in the destruction he creates at every turn. I lost count of how many people perished in one grisly attack near the beach that makes Jaws look about as menacing as Bambi. And somehow, the attacks even vary at how successful they are, and just what gets attacked. Various body parts are ripped out and eaten in detail, and many people end up more mangled than the trailers suggest. Aja has a go-for-broke style that we rarely get a chance to see in modern horror, and pushes the limits of what he can show at any given moment. I have heard there were cuts made to the film, but as it is, I cannot even fathom what could have possibly been chopped out in comparison to what they left in.
But the buckets of blood are only the beginning. This is also a film that revels in having bare breasts appear almost every five minutes. Hell, there is an entire five minute underwater ballet-like scene that borders on soft porn. But again, it does not seem like Aja cares. He just wants to revel in how much he can possibly get away with, full frontal nudity and all. It almost feels exploitative at times with just how much these female actresses show off, specifically Kelly Brook and Riley Steele (who is just one of a handful of porn stars who appear in the film). Aja knows his audience, knows his genre, and knows the films that inspired it. It almost comes off like he wanted to ensure he had enough bare breasts so he knew he did not do a disservice to all of those expecting gratuitous amounts of nudity.
The film's ultimate success comes from its humour though. With just how ridiculous the film quickly becomes, it never loses sight of its tone and lack of seriousness. It may get extraordinarily gruesome, but it is never serious or horrific enough that you will have trouble laughing at what is going on. The campy one-liners are all very effective, as is the film's nostalgic sensibilities. Even better are the cast members who provide them: Christopher Lloyd as an aquarium owner two steps short of Doc Brown; Jerry O'Connell as a coked out porn producer; Ving Rhames as a bad ass deputy; Eli Roth as the host of a wet t-shirt contest. Everyone brings their A-game, and maintain their deadpan humour throughout. They all look to be having just as much of a blast as Aja is.
But there are issues with the film. For one, some of the special effects are lacking. The explicit shots showing the piranha destroying their victims all seem to look awful, as do the piranhas themselves (3D effects do nothing but make them look even worse). The makeup effects are working at full throttle in every single case, but the effects of how these people are being ripped limb from limb seems to have not been too much of a concern for anyone. I realize the campy style of the film, but its style does not excuse its shoddy special effects. The character development is also a little stilted, much like the performance of main star Steven R. McQueen. Had Aja sacrificed the thirty to forty minutes of "development" and just added more mayhem, this would not be nearly as much of an issue. But looking at the movie and its style, I doubt Aja was going for perfection here.
Granted you are the audience for buckets of blood and gratuitous amounts of nudity, Piranha 3D delivers on all counts. It has some problems and is far from a great movie, but its campy and nostalgic style more than forgives any issue. The film exists solely to be gleefully destructive. And as long as you realize that going in, you will not be disappointed.
(This review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).