With “Piranha,” the 32-year-old carnivorous fish franchise has lost none of its bite, serving up a fresh batch of spring-break revelers for the fearsome creatures to attack. Initially hatched by the Roger Corman camp and now kept alive by the cash-strapped Weinstein brothers, the low-risk, high-reward series steals yet another page from the “Jaws” playbook, delivering this, its third bigscreen installment, in stereoscopic 3D. Gimmick-driven pic takes its “eye-popping” selling point so literally, peepers are repeatedly shown dislodged from their owners’ heads; in that spirit, the 3D conversion will allow Dimension to collect a premium from August auds followed by robust homevideo business.
Gratuitous doesn’t begin to describe French director Alexandre Aja’s guilty-pleasure aesthetic. Considering an exploitation premise in which villainous fish see humans as so much succulent flesh, it comes as no surprise that the sadistic “High Tension” helmer thinks little more of his characters. Before long, one begins to suspect these piranha were engineered to gnaw through bikini tops, with the bloodshed serving as an excuse for a boob show.
Unlike the Joe Dante-directed, John Sayles-scripted 1978 version, this latest “Piranha” has no underlying political agenda. Instead, “Sorority Row” scribes Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg work up a rowdy party premise, in which Jerry O’Connell plays a Joe Francis-like sleazeball shooting “Girls Gone Wild”-style videos on fictional Lake Victoria (actually Arizona’s Lake Havasu, presented with all the booty-popping subtlety of an MTV Spring Break special, complete with hip-hop mood setters).
The amateur porn impresario enlists local boy Jake Forester (moody “Vampire Diaries” star Steven R. McQueen) to help guide his yacht, dragging along the teen’s still-innocent love interest, Kelly (Jessica Szohr). Jake’s supposed to be babysitting his two young siblings while his mother, an unlikely sheriff played by Elisabeth Shue, tries to keep all the horny college kids swarming the resort in check — a job that would be easier if the lake weren’t also swarming with prehistoric piranha (larger, toothier and more vicious than the South American variety).
Goldfinger and Stolberg went to considerable trouble devising a pseudo-scientific plot to explain how an earthquake managed to unleash these nasty predators from an immense subterranean lake, though it’s hard to imagine auds taking it seriously enough to alter their swimming habits (the way “Jaws” did 35 years earlier). By contrast, “Piranha” is played for tongue-in-cheek appeal, delivering an increasingly outrageous series of “kills,” kicking off with a wink-wink cameo from Richard Dreyfuss (outfitted as his “Jaws” character and singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home”) playing a drunken fisherman who gets far more than just a nibble.
Part of the original “Piranha’s” charm was its low-budget ingenuity, which excused such shortcuts as employing goofy sound effects to make a swarm of fish seem menacing. Three decades later, the basic problem still persists, where the concept of being eaten alive remains far scarier than the execution. Although Aja effectively used sound design to enhance the suspense in “High Tension,” here he relies more heavily on digital trickery (the fish themselves are CG) and gonzo 3D effects, thrusting everything from projectile vomit to a dismembered member in our faces.
The overall tone is fratboy-irreverent, showing little respect for life (Eli Roth’s nasty exit is designed for a laugh) and even less for the ladies. When young female characters aren’t competing in wet T-shirt contests or staging elaborate lesbian fantasies, they’re getting their hair caught in motorboat engines or having their swimwear devoured to offer fleeting glimpses of frontal nudity.
All told, “Piranha” is better made than it had to be, more clumsily scripted than the film that inspired it (yet nowhere near as embarrassing as the earlier, James Cameron-made flying-fish sequel) and rendered unexpectedly watchable by its cast: Kooky scientist Christopher Lloyd makes the most of his cameo, while tough-guy deputy Ving Rhames reminds the fish where they belong on the food chain.
Although the film is being billed as “Piranha 3D,” the onscreen title simply reads “Piranha.” Except during high-concept moments when objects pop into the auditorium, the 3D conversion adds little, with rippling water and foreground details playing distracting tricks on the eyes.