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Movie review: 'Piranha 3D'

Spring break. A bikini-top-optional attitude. Prehistoric fish with a nasty underbite. The result is meant to be funny. But, hey, is it too much to ask for a few scares?

August 20, 2010|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

"Piranha 3D," the film that asks the question "How do you like your humans filleted?" and answers "In large numbers, please," is trying so hard for the laughs and the allusions amid all the gore, and endless bloodbath of bare naked ladies, that it completely forgets to frighten anyone.

And seriously, though it's impossible to be serious about a film like this, the top priority for any horror moviemaker, even when tongue is planted firmly in cheek, should be building a better scare factor rather than figuring out how many 3-D boobs can be captured in a single frame.

Ah, but bodies, and body parts — ripped, shredded, chewed and, in the case of a particularly significant male body part, spit out in all its 3-D glory — are really what this "Jaws" and "Piranha" hard-R parody is all about.

The beginning is promising. Richard Dreyfuss has re-donned his Matt Hooper rumpled scientist togs from "Jaws" down to the glasses, and goes about re-creating the classic moment — in a boat, all alone, on a vast body of water, singing "Show Me the Way to Go Home."

A seismic rumble cracks open an underground cavern — "You mean a lake under the lake?" asks Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue). Why, yes, my pretty — one that is filled with prehistoric piranhas. Now forgive me if I don't get all the science right, but basically these bad boys are the scary dino-version of our modern-day nibblers, which essentially means they are even uglier and angrier and remarkably precise. They can, for instance, remove a bikini top without drawing blood, though they do invariably go back for the kill.

While the 1975 classic "Jaws" had Steven Spielberg at the helm, and "Piranha" in 1978 had Joe Dante, "Piranha 3D" has Alexandre Aja. Now Aja is used to having blood on his hands from the open flesh wounds of "High Tension" in 2003 to his 2006 remake of Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes." But despite showing blood-chilling promise, he's still about 20,000 leagues under their sea.

When it comes to blood, screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, who last collaborated on the 2009 lowbrow horror of "Sorority Row" (with Mark Rosman), have given him a lot to work with. The movie is set during spring break at a mythic Lake Victoria that draws 50,000 beer-soaked bodies each year. Just to spice things up, there's a thinly disguised "Girls Gone Wild" crew, helmed by a crazed Jerry O'Connell working that Speedo as director Derrick Jones.

Our central good kid is Jake, the sheriff's oldest son played by Steven McQueen (grandson of the late great). "Gossip Girl's" Jessica Szohr plays Kelly, the hometown girl he pines for. Most of the rest of the cast comes with descriptions rather than names: there's drunk kid, drunk dumb jock, drunk laughing jock, girl cut in half and, my personal favorite, propeller girl.

As to the actual story … well, there's a lake packed with drunk (see above) hotties in bikinis they're forever taking off. There are big piranha packs swarming. A few scientists stop by to throw in lines like "you're not going to believe this." A few law enforcements types scream, "Get out of the water now." Mayhem everywhere, enough that the fake-blood and severed-limb budget was probably the film's biggest expenditure. I'd try describing the gore, but words just can't do justice to the damage a massive Mesozoic underbite, and the occasional outboard motor, can do.

Besides Dreyfuss, there's a very funny turn by Christopher Lloyd, who does piranha risk assessment for the sheriff in his best Doc "Back to the Future" style. Though there are many laughs, "Piranha 3D" never reaches the smart observational satire of, say, "Scream," and it goes seriously overboard on the gore. The upside? You'll never be afraid to go into the water again.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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