Few movies shocked and awed me last year like 'Piranha.' I saw the movie twice the weekend it opened (since it wasn't screened for critics), and part of the reason I went again, so quickly, was to make sure I had actually seen what I thought I had seen the first time around.
Ostensibly a remake of the Joe Dante/John Sayles/Roger Corman cult classic, although this falls into that loose "remake in name only" category, Alexandre Aja's 'Piranha 3D' replaces the original film's militarized killer fish with a prehistoric breed, awoken during a vaguely-defined underwater seismic event. The original had the swarm of piranhas attacking a chintzy riverside resort in Texas (biographical aside: I grew up around where the movie was set and filmed) and a satiric emphasis was placed on the fish being the product of Vietnam experimentation (this is part of the reason so many young kids get gobbled up). 'Piranha 3D' shifts the location to Lake Victoria, a fictional Arizona town, which is besieged by spring breakers every year, eager to indulge in their most base, reptilian instincts. And as we all know, girls in bikinis make great snacks. In terms of satire, well, I'll get to that in a minute…
The "plot" of 'Piranha 3D' primarily concerns those that are forced to deal with the invading demon fish - the local sheriff (Elisabeth Shue), her deputy (Ving Rhames), a fish expert (Adam Scott, stealing every scene) and a local pet store owner (Christopher Lloyd, ditto). The sheriff's children are stranded in the infested waters - her teenage son (Steven R. McQueen) has taken up with a Joe Francis-type pornographer (Jerry O'Connell) and his two bimbos (Kelly Brook and porn star Riley Steele), while her two smaller children, who her son was supposed to watch, are now marooned on a sandy island surrounded by bloodthirsty fish.
'Piranha's tone is tongue-surgically-grafted-into-cheek; it seeks to emulate the boobs-and-blood formula that served so many '80's horror movies well. There is humor galore, too, from the roundly pitch-perfect performances (Adam Scott's line delivery is priceless) to the wink-wink/nudge-nudge special effects (more are practical and they're jaw-dropping). And then there's the edge that Aja's innate French-ness has on the production.
You see, the movie is a big takedown of American culture, both the straight-laced, puritanical hearts and our equally dangerous propensity to over-indulge to the point of wild excess. (One of the barges in the movie is filled with Christian fundamentalists telling the revelers that they're going to hell; the bible-thumpers get chomped on too.) The fact that Spring Break is a singularly American concept seems to endlessly fascinate Aja, with the fish coming from deep within the earth feeling less like a fluke of nature than some kind of biblical retribution.
As you can tell, I've thought long and hard about 'Piranha.' Probably too long and too hard. But I think it's a movie that deserves to be dissected and analyzed; it's that smart and clever and knowing. It's a real shame that the movie didn't do better business when it was released last summer. It was the perfect, down-and-dirty anecdote to all the bloated studio mush that was being hoisted on us week in, week out. An even bigger shame, though, is the fact that the studio, Dimension, rushed to capitalize on what little momentum the first film had by rushing a sequel into development without Aja and his collaborators. They probably found the director, a horror auteur as far as I'm concerned, too prickly and perfectionist, which is a terrible loss. Throughout the special features on this disc, the filmmaker talks about what would happen in the sequel, including his desire to see it set at the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, Thailand. When a director openly states his desire to see Christopher Lloyd electrocute piranhas as a nod to 'Back to the Future' for the sequel, and you don't give him that sequel, then you deserve to be gobbled up by razor-toothed fish too.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Dimension brings 'Piranha' to high-definition Blu-ray courtesy of Sony Pictures, which is releasing the film on a 50GB that is Region A locked. The film does auto-play, after which you're treated to an absolutely abysmal selection of self-feeding hype (about the revolutionary nature of Blu-ray) followed by some ghastly trailers for things like 'Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D.' The disc is BD-Live enabled but so far, there's nothing there.
Yes, the film was released in theaters as 'Piranha 3D.' No, it’s not in 3D here. (That’s a separate release, which will be getting a separate review, although not by me.) Instead, you get a perfectly acceptable 1080p/AVC-MPEG4 transfer (aspect ratio: 2.40:1). And you know what? There’s not a whole lot that’s lost in the lack of dimensionality.
In fact, for what it is, the transfer looks quite good. The movie is extremely colorful (a fact they go into in the special features) and I worried that so many colors, popping off the screen in luxurious high definition, would be more of an eyesore than anything else. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. From Kelly Brook’s shimmery red bikini, to the outlandishly attired spring breakers on their boats and barges, to the fountains of gore that erupt anytime a school of piranhas shows up, everything looks sharp and crisp and the colors never clash or bleed (although there is some slight banding during the murkier underwater sequences – a forgivable flaw that doesn’t dilute the excellence of the transfer).
The only drawback to such a crisp presentation is that the visual effects (particularly the computer-generated piranhas and a whirlpool that shows up towards the beginning of the film) look phonier than ever. This is one of the pitfalls of high definition, but it shouldn’t adversely affect your enjoyment, but it is worth noting and pointing out.
Otherwise, the transfer stands up ably – skin tones look good, detail is sharp but never over-pronounced, and there's a layer of grain that gives it a lived-in, filmic quality (they shot the movie on film and converted it to 3D later, since the 3D cameras wouldn't have worked with the glare from the water). 'Piranha' is a big, bright movie… about dozens of people dying. But this transfer more than retains not only the look of the film, but the feel of it as well, which is about the biggest compliment you can award a transfer.
'Piranha' runs about 80 minutes long, and there's never a dull moment. Because of this, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix really needed to bring the heat. Thankfully, it did.
Like the movie itself it's always active but never overwhelmingly so, and perfectly captures the king of spring break sensory overload director Aja and his co-conspirators were aiming for. For example: there's a spring break sequence where the camera dips below "sea level" and this is remarkably rendered here, because not only is the party music blaring (but never blown out), when the camera goes underwater you here the "blip" of breaking the waterline and then the distorted music. This could have been totally lost, turned into cacophonous mush, but this mix more than outdoes itself.
Time and time again you’ll be floored by how well and consistently the surround sound channels are used – when the fish of piranhas encircle an unsuspecting teen, when a party barge buckles and falls into the water, when a whirlpool gobbles up Richard Dreyfuss – it’s all there and it sounds beautiful. Sound effects are strong without being overbearing, dialogue is crisp, clear and easy to understand, the music (both source and film score) comes through loud and mean… It’s all just really, really excellent. If you aren’t sold on the quality of the sound mix by the time Adam Scott grabs a shotgun and jumps onto a jet ski, well, there may be no hope for you at all.
While this is the lone audio option on the disc, there are subtitles available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
Despite the lackluster box office, Sony and Dimension have lavished 'Piranha' with a cornucopia of special features; some that they share with the regular edition DVD and some that are Blu-ray exclusives. They're all, like the movie itself, super entertaining and fun.
In my estimation, Alexandre Aja's balls-out 'Piranha 3D' is some kind of gonzo masterpiece. Relentlessly entertaining and often side-splittingly hilarious, it's a sharp combination of visceral, bloody thrills, and pointed political satire. Oh, and boobs. Lots and lots and lots of boobs. The 2D Blu-ray edition looks and sounds superb and has many special features that can’t be found on the DVD or the 3D Blu-ray version of the film. Yes, I sort of miss the geysers of blood shooting out at me from the movie screen, but it doesn’t dull the movie's considerable edge. Not in the slightest. If you want a guilty pleasure romp that you don’t have to feel too guilty about afterwards, then you should really let ‘Piranha 3D’ sink its teeth into you. It's highly recommended.