It’s summer time. Moviemakers bring out the big scary guns, intent on keeping us onshore and nervous, haunted and thrilled by the wonders of the deep. Monsters keep us coming back to the movies, real and imagined. Aliens from outer space, vampires from Transylvania, toxically enhanced city stompers from Japan. But ah, every summer we turn to the wicked wonders of the briny deep. Jaws started the trend and revisited the franchise until it ran out of teeth. This summer, in a slight, vulgar, and goofy variation on the go-to deep-sea exploitation template, French scaremeister Alexandre High Tension Aja brings us hordes of CGI Piranha. In 3D no less. Thousands of them. Time to break out the big bucks for the funny glasses or catch the 35-year old classic on DVD again? Secure that teeny bikini top. Suck it in for that Speedo. We’re going to the Beach.
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In the first few minutes, thousands of prehistoric piranhas are loosed from their prehistoric underworld by a seismic event. Scientists and lawmakers are dispatched. Chaos ensues. In their relentless search for blood and food, these hideous predators terrorize scores of silicone-enhanced Spring Breakers and the pinheads and lunks who writhe with them. Academy Award nominee Elisabeth Shue plays single mom Sheriff of Lake Victoria. (Lake Victoria’s Secret? A prehistoric lake underneath and not much clothing above water.) Ving Rhames plays her giant deputy. Jerry O’Connell has way more fun than we do playing a super-creepy, tweaking version of Girls Gone Wild’s perpetrator/creator Joe Francis. It’s a whole lot of fun seeing Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss up on the big screen; one wishes they had some better material to sink their teeth into.
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The Defending Champion
John Williams. Robert Shaw. Richard Dreyfuss. Roy Scheider. Steven Spielberg. A mechanical shark named Bruce. Go back three and a half decades with me if you can. It’s summer. The movie theater is packed. So packed that you find yourself sitting in the very front row all the way on the side. The arched rows of the huge theater (decades before small screens and multiplexes) create an angle that allows you to see the entire audience in your peripheral vision. While the image on screen warps slightly, the entire crowd jumps as one in their seats as the lone girl is yanked from the surface to her painful demise and you jump too. A head floats up, its eyeballs missing, its sockets empty. The audience leaps again. That ominous score sets your heart racing; Roy Scheider rears back, his shock and awe echoed with your own. The writing, the writing, the writing. So many great lines. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” “I got no spit.” So many great surprises, perfect moments and little personal character beats. Flawed heroes, reluctant and complex. That long monologue of Robert Shaw’s Sam Quint provides you nightmare food for years. The unforgettable John Williams score becomes an integral part of the soundtrack of your life and the rest of the world’s. It’s a momentous film event.
Seriously. Must I? Sigh. Piranha 3D doesn’t pack a huge punch, but un-critical audiences are bound to enjoy every minute of the brainless fun. Not a lot of jumps. Not a lot of scares. Not a lot of shocks. Just a whole lot of blood and gore and unapologetic nudity. Some tongue in cheek homage and inside jokes. Obvious satirical targets like pornographer Joe Francis — broad as the side of a barn and hard to hit when you’re using the same exact ammo to make the point. If there is a point. Watching young girls naked is kinda creepy. Period. Perhaps I’m just too much of a feminist and mother of two young daughters to think this kind of stuff is okay. Or maybe I’m just not…French.
Obviously. One doesn’t go to a sexploitation film to learn about female empowerment and body image issues. Elisabeth Shue plays (barely) aging action hero Barbie, and I suppose the filmmakers win some nebulous Brownie points for letting her go buff and strong. But she’s one woman in a virtual sea of twinks and skanks. More Brownie points for racial diversity; Ving Rhames goes Bass-o-matic on some Piranha ass toward the end. And the scientist (Adam Scott) doesn’t wear glasses. That’s something, I suppose.
Here’s the thing. Piranha 3D stepped into the Smackdown ring with the all-time champion. I could have easily evened the playing field, but I respect the filmmakers too much to rig the fight in their favor.
This is what they call damning with faint praise. Piranha 3D is no worse than all the toothless Jaws sequels — 2, 3, 4 and 3D. In fact, it’s pure unapologetically cheesy sexploitation, and those adolescents (aging and aged) who enjoy (and require) nothing more than a constant parade of nubile firm young flesh laid bare will have plenty of boobage (and more) to gawk at and appraise. I myself couldn’t wait for the bloodbath. For reasons I won’t explore here in public, spring break footage inspires me to entertain fantasies of mass extermination, and there was some satisfaction to ending the seemingly endless gyrating and noise. There’s not much else here. Not many memorable, quotable, or clever lines, no big scares, some world class WTF stunt casting, pretty young people in bikinis and birthday suits and wholesale carnage — that’s what’s in store for you. We had Cash For Clunkers. Now we get Boobs For Boobs. As Abraham Lincoln said, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I’ve quoted him before and I’ll probably quote him again. Abe was a great film critic — probably would have had some pretty snarky things to say about theater too had he the chance… Oh hell. Watch Jaws.