PIRANHA [3-D?] (2010)
Dir. Alexandre Aja
Starring Steven R. McQueen, Elizabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Jerry O’Connell, and Ving Rhames (with Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss for a combined 3 minutes).
I think most serious horror buffs have high hopes for Alexandre Aja. Not because of what he’s done, exactly, but because of the obvious potential for what he seems destined to do someday. He’s really only made one good movie out of four now, but his talent, imagination, and audacity are so readily on display that it seems like it has to be only a matter of time til he makes that great one. This ain’t it, but it’s fun and generally does what it’s trying to do. Which is be a parodic remake of a parody of JAWS. So it’s cute but not really striving for greatness exactly. Which is kind of a shame because in some ways it could have been a legitimately great B-movie instead of a parody of one if they had tried a little harder.
There are actually some really inspired scenes of mayhem and gore here, and to his credit Aja knows to have his leads play it pretty straight. The setup about a single-mother sheriff and her older son and younger kids is positively Spielbergian in its commitment to earnestly corny familial relations. But Spielberg would have known that setup is not enough, you actually have to give them some arc, and Aja either doesn’t know that yet or doesn’t think it’s important in a movie like this. But of course it is.
In college, I took a few courses with Dr. Neal King, a professor of Sociology I guess but his interests were mostly in pop culture (he taught a class called “Action Cinema” and now has one simply called “Masculinity.” College is awesome.) Anyway, he claimed that nearly all successful films have an identifiable four-act structure, and as such follow a certain dramatic structure which reveals to the audience what the important narrative arcs are (it’s developments in the major thematic arcs which serve to structure the acts). As a guy who tends to be skeptical of that kind of generalization, I somewhat resisted the theory, but the more movies I see the more I realize not only that he was pretty much right, but that there’s a damn good reason most movies are set up this way. PIRANHA has a bunch of fun scenes and even some fun characters, but there’s no structure at all. It’s just a bunch of shit that happens and then it’s over. The characters seem to have a little personality but they have no arcs whatsoever, no one learns or grows or changes except that some of them are reduced to awesomely bloody tattered skeletons. There’s literally no story at all, just a bunch of scenes that happen to some people.
This makes it a curiously unsatisfying experience. Not that the pieces aren’t fun, but so little is attempted to make you care about what’s happening that it ends up feeling so slight it might float away. And it’s kind of a shame too, because Aja gets the tone pretty right. He knows it’s a comedy but he treats it in kind of an amiably serious fun way. He’s got a great little cast of fun performers who all seem more than game for the tone he’s trying for, but then none of them really get to do anything. They get introduced and then it’s straight to the feeding frenzy for all of them. So as fun as it is to watch those cartoony piranhas devastate the fleshy bodies of their victims, the added fun of caring about who is being eaten is mostly absent. There’s virtually no drama in a single death here – no hero gets a tragic or noble death, no villain really gets a satisfying piranha-assisted comeuppance. Half the fun of these films is the schadenfreude of watching some despicable character endanger everyone and get what’s coming to him – this one doesn’t really get much out of that dynamic because none of the characters are around long enough to have much impact, good or bad.
You might ague Jerry O’Connell’s Michael-Bay-filming-Girls-Gone-Wild* character is meant to be unlikable, but I don’t buy that he works on that level. He’s kind of an ass, but not so much that you’re really rooting for him to bite it (or, uh, get it bit, I guess). In fact, in a movie this broad a big cartoony performance like that kind of makes him annoyingly endearing instead of hateable (Aja does harness the immediate and overwhelming unlikability of Eli Roth to get one satisfying kill). But the true villain of the film is this douchebag frat boy who gets out of harm’s way by climbing into a motor boat and mowing down his peers as they get in his way. Now that’s a hateable bastard. What happens to him? We don’t even get to see! He falls into the water and the film cuts away without even showing him get bit. See, that’s exactly where I want to see you get creative with some horrible piranha gore!
On the other end of the spectrum, the heroes don’t get a lot of payoff either. A couple of the apparent main characters do die, but it’s dealt with completely indifferently. Someone who’s been, well, if not important, at least around since the beginning of the film will suddenly die this cruel, gruesome death in the middle of a scene and no one seems to comment on it or be much affected by it. The actors are likeable enough that you feel bad when they’re reduced to fish food, even with funny gimmicks like the stripper who gets completely eaten except for her skeleton and her floating silicone implants. That’s a funny concept, but it’s not as fun when you like the characters and are denied even a hint of pathos about their passing. Aja clearly want his characters to come across as sympathetic, but for some reason he completely misses every opportunity to create even the barest of drama.
This failure to take advantage of narrative arc applies to the structure of the story too, which has the distinct and odd feeling of a movie which is missing the final act. It’s all setup and a few teasers for the first hour, then all hell breaks loose with the admirable epic and memorable spring break massacre, then there’s one other smaller-scale setpiece which finally includes the apparent protagonist (played by Steve McQueen’s grandson, no shit!) and then just when it seems like it’s finally built some momentum it suddenly ends (OK, the joke they go out on is a thoroughly winning one, but still). Why spend all that time setting up the characters if they never go anywhere?
Now of course, I don’t need to remind you of the PIRANAHA series’ directorial legacy, and I’ll take it as a sign of Aja’s ambition that he’s associating his name with the series. But as of now, this is just one more example of his ability to tease us by coming frustrating close to greatness, only to fumble a few key aspects and sabotage all his good work.
Still, it delivers about all the piranha-themed carnage you could possibly desire, and even if it’s a little unsatisfying it’s got a good sense of puckish fun. I do wish I had seen it in 3-D. Oh well, that’s three more dollars for cheap hooch which arguably makes for an equally enjoyable augmentation.
*Look at that haircut, that open shirt, that awkward manic overconfidence and fucking try to tell me he’s not playing Michael Bay.