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How Piranha 3D defied the curse of bad 3D movies

Sometimes a movie is stupid in just the right way.

It seems unlikely the pioneers of 3D cinema ever envisaged their technology being used to gross out audiences with a disembodied penis belched up by a prehistoric piranha. Still, you can’t stop progress.

Now streaming on HBO Max, Piranha 3D arrived in 2010, a year after the monumental success of Avatar left every major studio haphazardly attempting to capitalize on the returning appetite for all things three-dimensional. While a handful of films managed to create a similarly impressive immersive experience (see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, space disaster Gravity), the majority – particularly those converted to the format retroactively – were ugly-looking affairs that left cinemagoers reaching for the aspirin.

Unlike egregious offenders Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender, and The Nutcracker in 3D, the extremely loose remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha proved to be a literally eye-popping blast. And the man who’d previously put his stamp on another ‘70s cult classic – Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes – can take much of the credit.

Alexandre Aja had made his name with 2003’s Haute Tension, an unashamedly bloody slasher that briefly aligned him with the New French Extremity movement. Yet the generic double whammy of P2 and Mirrors suggested the move to Tinseltown had tamed his wilder side. With its Spring Break setting and outlandish premise, however, Piranha 3D allowed the Parisian to rediscover his boundary-pushing mojo.

Those pesky pre-historic piranhas. Dimension Films

This is a film where every inch of a reveler's skin is ripped off after getting her hair caught in a motorboat propeller. A naked paraglider emerges from the sea with half her body missing, and a partygoer decapitated by a wayward electric cable conveniently happens to also expose her breasts. Aja ensures each increasingly outlandish death gives those wearing 3D glasses something to recoil at.

Sure, the middling box office hit is as gimmicky as you’d anticipate from a B-movie horror about an army of super-aggressive fish. It’s essentially a 3D Disney World attraction in R-rated feature-length form. But free from any pretensions of grandeur, it hits the gleefully gory mark almost every time.

Jerry O’Connell in the midst of getting his penis chewed off. Dimension Films

Unsurprisingly, the script isn’t quite so multi-dimensional. As revealed in an unsubtle exposition drop by marine biologist Carl Goodman (Christopher Lloyd), the cold open’s minor earthquake has unleashed a killer piranha species presumed to have been extinct since the dawn of humanity. And having spent millions of years surviving through cannibalism, they’re keen to taste a different kind of flesh. The fact Goodman can deduce all this from one cursory glance at a captured critter reflects how shallow the movie’s science is.

In a clever nod to the original’s blatant inspiration, the first victim is Richard Dreyfuss pretty much reprising his role as Jaws’ oceanographer Matt Hooper: he’s even listening to the Spielberg classic’s singalong “Show Me the Way to Go Home” before getting devoured in seconds. The dramatic, propane-exploding finale also has echoes of the much less celebrated Jaws II.

The majority of the main cast is simply there to look pretty. Steven McQueen (grandson of the Hollywood icon) is the doe-eyed hunk who ditches his babysitting duties to spend time lusting after his childhood sweetheart (Jessica Szohr). Men’s magazine favorite Kelly Brook and porn star Riley Steele’s main contribution is to writhe naked together in a ridiculous underwater sequence soundtracked by operatic number “The Flower Duet.” Jerry O’Connell plays a sleazeball adult film director, a role which, judging by the sheer amount of nudity on display here, could be construed as something of a self-own.

Adam Scott and Elizabeth Shue trying to keep their dignity intact. Dimension Films

The film’s grown-ups — Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, and Adam Scott — aren’t given much to do apart from shout “get out of the water” to the parade of braindead himbos and bimbos frolicking in the piranha-infested waters. However, Scott, playing the gung-ho hero rather than the lovable nerd for a change, does provide the film’s biggest jump-out-of-your-seat moment in a gleeful final twist that recalls how Deep Blue Sea dispatched with Samuel L. Jackson.

Nevertheless, it’s the aquatic monsters, and the pure carnage they cause, that most would have bought a ticket for. They don’t disappoint. Whereas Dante and the 1982 sequel’s director James Cameron were saddled with fish obviously puppeteered by crew members with sticks, Aja had a state-of-the-art VFX team at his disposal. The film itself isn’t frightening in the slightest, but with their razor-sharp fangs and bulging red eyes, its critters can make you scared to ever dip your toe in the sea again. And, as Goodman suddenly concludes, these are only the babies!

Unfortunately, even the return of Lloyd’s Doc Brown-esque expert couldn’t save the sequel, in which the surviving piranhas divert their reign of terror to a water park, that washed up in theaters two years later. 3DD (ugh) went overboard with all the mindless sex and violence, and despite being filmed with 3D rigs, looked visually flatter than its predecessor. Piranha 3D, on the other hand, knew exactly when to throw regurgitated manhoods at its audience, and it did so in style.

Piranha 3D is streaming on HBO Max.

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