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Piranha (2010)

Sony Pictures // R // January 11, 2011
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 12, 2011 | E-mail the Author
Mangled corpse.
Severed limb.
More blood.
A piranha belching up a half-eaten CGI penis.
A half-hour of drunken twentysomethings being eaten by fish.
Probably more tits.
Fade to black; roll credits.

I think that's supposed to be the plot summary for this review too, and no, I'm not complaining. See, I grew up devouring horror and exploitation flicks in the 1980s...that stretch between the grim and gritty stuff of the '70s
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and the post-modern PG-13-dom of the '90s. I stumbled into the genre back when it was ridiculous, shamelessly over the top, added treat for a kid in junior high!...fat-packed with nudity. Alexandre Aja's remake of Piranha is a throwback to all that, boiling down to pretty much nothing but cootchie and carnage. Well, kind of, but I'll get into the complainy part later, so just roll with the Penthouse-meets-Gorezone thing for now.

The sleepy little hamlet of Lake Victoria is under attack...infested by legions of the most repulsive, ravenous, destructive, irredeemable creatures to ever skulk the earth. Y'know, Spring Breakers! She's the Sheriff (Elisabeth Shue) has her hands full trying to reign them in as it is, and that's when it swarms in...a primal, malevolent force that ravages and consumes everything in its path. Y'know, Joe Francis. Oh! Wait. They call him Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell) in this flick. Anyway, Derrick is doing the whole Girls Gone WildWild Wild Girls thing in Lake Victoria. His business is chucking beads at drunken, nubile, artificially inflated chicks to get 'em to make out or tear off their tops, and baby, business is good! Oh, but then a bunch of piranha swarm in and eat everybody.

There are characters...kind of?...and subplots and all that, but you could shout "Spring Break SharkPiranha Attack!" and pretty much cover it all. Drive-in totals? More boobs than I could possibly count. An underwater porn starlet sapphic ballet. A chick gets swarmed when she's parasailing, and when the boat speeds up again, a half-eaten corpse soars up into the sky. Oh, and Piranha finds a way to work in a boob shot there too. A hyperbusty cheerleader gets sliced down the middle, and half her torso slo-o-o-o-wly sloughs off into the water. Oh, and Piranha finds a way to work in a boob shot there too. One chick gets her hair caught in the propeller of a speedboat, and when it starts back up again, her face gets ripped clean off. (No boob shot there, alas!) You've got head-crushing. You've got that belched-up CGI penis. You've got dismembered limbs. You've got screaming chicks literally falling to pieces as they're dragged out of the water. You've got cops blasting piranha with shotguns and tasers. Ving Rhames grabs an outboard motor and mows down a bunch of piranha for whatever the hell reason. The scale of all this carnage is borderline-surreal...think the Normandy sequence in Saving Private Ryan, only with bleach blondes and CGI fish. It feels like Aja sat down with the splatter effects titans at KNB to dream up every dementedly gory gag they could, and the last twenty minutes is nothing but all that breathlessly strung together, one after another after another.

Here's the thing, though. No piranha? No tits, even? No interest. There are small, scattered bursts of Awesome leading up to the Spring Break feeding frenzy, but most of the first hour is a slow, uninteresting slog. Joe Dante's original Piranha also saved most of its mayhem for the climax, but it did a much better job grabbing my attention even in its down moments. There's more there there. Alexandre Aja's Piranha...I mean, Kelly Brook and Riley Steele writhing around naked in an underwater
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nymph ballet is worth taking the time to marvel at, and Christopher Lloyd turns up as an exposition-flinging pet store owner who ravenously chews on the scenery more than the piranha ever do, but other than that, I could just skip to the 55 minute mark and not feel as if I missed much of anything. So much of the first hour is dragged down by bland, forgettable characters and clunky, creaking dialogue. I mean, I'm not expecting sparkling wit or lush characterization from a flick about spring breakers being devoured by prehistoric piranha, but a lot of it's not even passably entertaining. The exceptions...? Again, a hyper-hammy Christopher Lloyd. Kelly Brook as the big sister type with the big cans. Jerry O'Connell as the most fascinating sleaze-peddler this side of Timothy Olyphant from The Girl Next Door. Everyone else...? Blah.

Is it worth slogging through the first hour to get to the good stuff? Hell yes. Piranha gets that it's an exploitation flick and revels in it, delivering the goods in a way I didn't think you could even get away with in a mainstream movie anymore. This Blu-ray disc is rated R, but it sure feels like I'm watching an unrated cut with a banner screaming "with footage too hot for theaters!" on the cover or something. Piranha is a deliriously fun, gruesome, and deliberately dumb (though dumber than it wants to be) throwback to the trashy genre movies I grew up with in the '80s. Just wish there were a lot more killer and not so much filler. Recommended.

Piranha is hitting Blu-ray in two separate releases. One is shiny and in 3D...real 3D too, requiring a 3DTV and everything. Ooooh! Two downsides to that, though. One, the 3D release loses a lot of the extras. Two, the 3D, at least if it's anything like what I caught in theaters, is kind of terrible. Piranha was conceived from word one as a 3D flick, but shooting on the water made using traditional 3D cameras impossible. It was converted to 3D in post-production, although everyone involved wants you to know that the 2D source photography was very deliberately handled for optimal conversion. Didn't work. The underwater sequences were so dark and murky in 3D that I frequently couldn't tell what the hell was going on (other than the general idea of fish munching on people, obviously). Even with stuff like CG vomit spewing towards me, I didn't really get a strong sense of depth. It's the worst 3D experience I've had in theaters for sure. DVD Talk wasn't sent a copy of the 3D Blu-ray disc to see how it fares by comparison -- which is fine, seeing as how we don't have a reviewer with a 3D display! -- but for my money, I think you're better off with this 2D release.

I really wasn't all that
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keen on the way Piranha looked theatrically in 3D, but this Blu-ray disc...? Whole other deal. This 2D version of Piranha is kind of gorgeous, and the screenshots scattered around this review really don't do it justice. In very stark contrast to...well, pretty much every other horror flick of recent memory, the palette is generally bright and candy-colored. The underwater stretches are deliberately murky, of course, but most of the mayhem takes place under the light of day. The eye-popping blue sky, the greenish-blue surface of the lake, the richly saturated colors of all the spring breakers...this has to be one of the sunniest, most vividly colorful genre movies I've ever stumbled across, and that translates extremely well to high-def. Clarity and fine detail are both really strong...maybe even too strong since they reveal just how plastic and unconvincing a lot of the CGI work is. Howlingly bad CG plays in pretty well with the schlocky aesthetic of the whole thing, so I guess that's not necessarily a minus. Even though Alexandre Aja made it a point to have Piranha shot on 35mm -- anamorphic, even! -- rather than go the digital route, the photography isn't exaggeratedly gritty or grainy. The texture doesn't appear to have been artificially smoothened away -- it's just understated -- and I couldn't spot any hiccups in the authoring. Black levels did strike me as weaker than I'd expect: frequently a charcoal gray or even purple in some stretches. Contrast is also really flat underwater, but that may be intentional-slash-unavoidable. Whatever. I think it looks great.

Piranha swarms onto a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, although the movie itself fits on one layer with plenty of room to spare. This high-def release does carry over the flick's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and the video's been encoded with AVC.

Piranha is lugging around a 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and it generally sounds great. The sound design definitely got copied on the memo about the whole multichannel mix thing: the rush of water into the surrounds, the frantic chomp-chomp-chomping of the feeding frenzy from every direction, swarms of piranha rapidly encircling their prey...the surrounds don't collect all that much dust throughout the flick's eighty-however-many-minutes. Between the thumping low-end the Spring Breakers' stereos are pumping and the bassy gurgle underwater, Piranha also kept my subwoofer pretty busy as well. Dialogue does suffer at times. It has a tendency to get overwhelmed by the music that's blaring, and some lines -- such as pretty much everything Jerry O'Connell belts out when Derrick is first introduced -- sound strangely tinny. Those aren't constant headaches, at least, and I don't have any major gripes overall.

No dubs or downmixes this time around. Sorry, kids. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH) and Spanish, so there's that. The audio commentary is also accompanied by optional English subtitles.

Alexandre Aja raved about an unrated director's cut and a bunch of webisodes being included on this Blu-ray disc, but either someone forgot or that's being held out for a re-release further down the road.
  • Don't Scream: Just Swim! Behind the Scenes of Piranha 3D (2 hr., 9 min.; mostly, if not entirely, SD): That's right: Piranha is packing a feature-length making-of documentary, one that's forty minutes longer than the movie itself! Maybe you're reading that and thinking "well, that's overkill", and...yeah, I agree. Don't Scream: Just Swim! can get pretty repetitive -- there's one scene where a CG model is being slowly rotated and adjusted for what seems like a day and a half, and I came close to giving up there -- and it's too long by at least a half-hour. Still, there's a lot of good stuff here, and...hey! DVD Talk's own Brian Ornforf is quoted at the beginning of it too!

    The doc can be watched in full or as a series of individual featurettes if you'd rather attack it that way. "Cast/Story" breezes through the many different takes on a Piranha remake, lining up the cast, all those cameos, and trying to capture the fun of exploitation flicks from the '70s and '80s. "Lake Victoria" dives into the logistical headaches of a big film crew shooting so much of a movie on the water. Obviously the flick's setting
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    gets a lot of attention here, and so does the cinematography, interestingly enough. "Spring Break" focuses on the titties and the need for actors in the background rather than just aimlessly flailing extras. A few audition tapes have been packed on here too. Aja talks about the lack of a European equivalent of Spring Break, the casting of Kelly Brook, the whole Wild Wild Girls thing, and the making of the underwater sapphic ballet. "Blood and Gore" is pretty self-explanatory, highlighting the staggering scale of this sort of splatter, gushing out 7,500 gallons of the red stuff every day. Ditto for "Special Effects and Stunts", which pays particular attention to some of the elaborate rigs used for the flick's standout sequences. "The Music" covers the recording of the score and the licensing of the booty bass jams or whatever the kids are calling that these days. "Piranha and Visual Effects" explores the creature design, oodles of CGI demos, linking shots on both sides of the water, and the swirling whirlpool from the opening sequence. "Why 3D?"...well, answers that question, and finally, "Cast Bites" is pretty much the cast and crew gushing about how amazing everyone and everything has been. There's a lot of great stuff here, but as exhaustive as Don't Scream: Just Swim! is, it's kind of exhausting too, and it could've benefitted from some tightening in the editing suite.

    I admittedly listened to Don't Scream: Just Swim! more than I watched it, but every time I poked my head over, it looked like upconverted standard-def to me...down to the footage excerpted from the flick. There were a few scattered shots that looked like they may have been shot on an HDV camcorder, but I don't really get why this is presented at 1080i. There's no shame in standard definition.

  • Audio Commentary: Co-writer/director/producer Alexandre Aja hops into the recording booth with longtime producer Grégory Lavasseur and producer Alix Taylor. The downside is that two-thirds of the people churning out this commentary speak English as their second language, and the thick accents and slight discomfort with the language can make for rough listening. I didn't scribble down all that many highlights. They respond to the fact that The Weinstein Company spoiled the last shot in the flick in the trailers. The three of 'em marvel at the fact that the full-everything-nudity of the underwater nymph ballet made it past the MPAA without any cuts. A SPECIAL SURPRISE GUEST in the movie apparently made everyone on the crew scream "die, Nazi bastard!" after every take. There's a little bit of chatter about the handful of cameos, explaining why so many porn stars are on the bill, the stifling heat, the headaches of shooting on water, the tight shooting schedule, working with a fairly lean budget for a movie this ambitious, and the scale of all the visual effects. I just didn't find the commentary all that engaging, and it's definitely not an essential listen with a two hour doc elsewhere on the disc.

  • Deleted Scenes (8 min.; HD): Most everything in this reel of deleted scenes was wisely snipped out of Piranha. There's a different introduction to Christopher Lloyd, another appearance by porn starlet Ashlynn Brooke (more titties!), a little more cliff diving, and a ::sniffles!:: heart-to-heart between Steven R. McQueen and Jessica Szohr, our two young would-be-lovers who are so bland that I didn't bother to mention them in the review till now. More memorably...? There's the reveal of a couple of corpses on an island where two kids are stranded. One character completely disappears in the final cut, and here you actually get to see what happened to him, minus the visual effects that were never completed.

    Alexandre Aja does offer up optional
    [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
    commentary for these sequences as well. Strangely, he keeps referencing the director's cut on this Blu-ray disc even though it's rated R. Maybe the plans changed midstream? He also points out the very different location where the climax was originally intended to take place.

  • Deleted Storyboard Sequences (11 min.; HD): Oh, man, it's too bad Piranha couldn't pony up the few million it'd take to knock out these additional scenes 'cause they would've been amazing. First to bat is the aftermath to the airborne tittied-torso. This is followed by an extended sequence in a Burger Shack that pits a dishwasher against an army of piranha bubbling up through the sink. Even with as many titties as there are in Piranha, there isn't any actual sex. The last of these sequences would've changed up that whole thing with some kinky Suicide Girl boning in a car where the emergency brake accidentally gets yoinked off... I really, desperately wish all of these could've made it into the final cut.

  • Promotional Stuff (4 min.; HD): One trailer and four TV spots, all in shiny, pristine HD. There are plugs for other flicks elsewhere on this disc.
Nope, no digital copy or slipcover this time out. Piranha is a BD-Live-enabled disc, but that switch hadn't been flipped on as of this writing.

The Final Word
Piranha delivers blood, boobs, and beasties on a scale I didn't think you could get away with in theaters this side of 1987. The downside is that pretty much all of that's crammed into the last half-hour, and everything leading up to that can be pretty tedious. Piranha's clearly not aiming all that high with its screenplay, characterization, or performances, and...well, yeah. Still, even for a flick about prehistoric fish eating spring breakers, it's aggressively dumb. I like Piranha for what it is, but the flick feels like a climax in search of a movie, and seriously, you won't be missing much if you skip the first 55 minutes altogether. Machete remains the reining king of the exploitation renaissance in my book, but Piranha is still worth at least a rental. Recommended.
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