Back when James Cameron’s Avatar was released, there was a lot of talk about the future of 3-D movies – about how much better the process had become with high definition cameras, about how they didn’t simply throw things at the screen but actually immersed you in another world. In March of 2009, Josh Quittner of Time published an article about the 3-D revolution, particularly in relation to Avatar, which had yet to be released. After seeing some finished footage, he concluded that the work was so absorbing and detailed that he awoke the following morning with the peculiar sensation of wanting to return to Pandora, as if it were real. “Cameron wasn’t surprised,” he wrote. “One theory, he says, is that 3-D viewing ‘is so close to a real experience that it actually triggers memory creation in a way that 2-D viewing doesn’t.’ His own theory is that stereoscopic viewing uses more neurons.”
Given what was said at the time, what would Quittner say now about movies like Piranha 3-D, a remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 film? Hell, what would Cameron say, given that 1981’s Piranha II: The Spawning was his directorial debut? Would there be any mention of triggering memory creations or neurons or wanting to return to anything? I have my doubts. They might, however, have a thing or two to say about a shot late in the film of two piranhas fighting over a severed penis, the victor eventually spitting out the half-eaten remains directly at the screen. The audience I sat with had plenty to say, although not in words so much as in loud outbursts of disgust and laughter; I clearly heard a guy a few rows behind me say, “Dude, ugh, dude!” This is the future of 3-D, folks. Cameron and Quittner should be proud.
I’m going out on a limb here, but Piranha 3-D is about as good as a film called Piranha 3-D can possibly be. It’s a no-holds-barred celebration of campy horror – bloody, brainless, and bawdy. It cheerfully assaults the senses and spits in the face of decency, not merely with scene after scene of relentless gore, but also with its exploitation of female anatomy, specifically breasts. Oh boy, but there are a lot of breasts in this movie, aided in no small part by real life adult actress Riley Steele and Playboy model Kelly Brooke. Director Alexandre Aja might as well have called it Piranhas and Boobs 3-D.
Now that I have your attention, shall we get to the plot? In the sleepy little town of Lake Victoria, seismic activity ruptures the lakebed and unleashes thousands of carnivorous prehistoric piranhas from an underwater chasm. They swim to the shores of Lake Victoria, where hordes of loud, drunken, horny teenage tourists are in the thick of Spring Break tomfoolery. The local sheriff, Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), and her deputy, Fallon (Ving Rhames), try to solve the mystery of how a half-eaten body washed up on shore; they join forces with a specially trained underwater research team, and as you can probably guess, the divers will not like what they find when they reach the chasm. Meanwhile, Julie’s teenage son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), is drawn into the world of Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell), a sleazoid Joe Francis parody filming his newest porn movie on a boat.
Julie manages to bring a live piranha to Mr. Goodman (Christopher Lloyd), the eccentric fish store owner and convenient piranha expert. This particular species, he claims, was supposed to have gone extinct millions of years ago; apparently, the ones that escaped the chasm kept themselves alive by feeding on themselves. Okay, I’ll give him that one; we know that cannibalistic species can successfully procreate. But what about the fact that they have emerged from complete darkness and extreme pressure, meaning they would not be able to adapt to the light or to the shallow waters, meaning they wouldn’t be able to reach the human flesh they so hunger for? Evolution has taught us that, in all likelihood, these fish wouldn’t even have eyes.
But what a minute. Why am I applying logic to this film? It’s not about scientific accuracy. It’s about people being eaten alive. It’s about severed limbs floating in the water. It’s about moments of blood-soaked absurdity, like when a girl gets her hair caught in the propeller blades of a boat, pulling her scalp and face clean off her skull. It’s about naked girls repeatedly shaking their chests. I wish it wasn’t about severed penises and the fish that enjoy eating them, but I guess you have to take the good with the bad. I can’t bring myself to say that Piranha 3-D is a good film, but it certainly achieves exactly what it wanted to achieve. You will laugh. You will scream. You will cringe. Assuming you’re a straight male, you will be aroused for much of the time. It’s sordid fun. All the same, I can’t help but wonder if James Cameron, who revolutionized the 3-D experience, isn’t somewhere right now sulking in shame.