They Took My Penis: Why Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D is a trashy masterpiece of excess and gratuit
One of my biggest pet-peeves when it comes to movies and movie fandom, is the argument that one is over-thinking a movie. We see it all the time with Star Wars, where we’re told it’s not supposed to be deep or complex, it’s popcorn fodder, you “turn your brain off and enjoy it”. I’ve always struggled with this argument because, well, what I’ve always enjoyed about movies is the bit where I don’t turn my brain off, but where I consider it, talk and discuss it, and generally just deconstruct and analyze the film.
The argument that you’re, for some reason, supposed to not think about a movie on any kind of deeper level is, for me at least, more an excuse to allow poor and lazy filmmaking than it is a genuine comment on the style or the substance a movie offers up. You’re well within your rights to enjoy dumb or lazy filmmaking (I mean, I like Music & Lyrics, and that film is most definitely lazy), but you have to recognize that for what it is, and, more importantly, the movie has to recognize that.
This, of course, works the other way as well. Film critics often seems to miss the bit where a film isn’t really trying to be deeper or more profound than surface level and will pan a movie despite it’s obvious knowingness. We saw this with The Greatest Showman, a film that I hated, but that admittedly tried to offer up nothing beyond being a simple feelgood musical.
The problems, for me at least, start to arise when a film seems to think it’s offering up the deep and the meaningful when in actuality it isn’t. This is why I simply couldn’t get on board with The Rise of Skywalker. The film plays itself like it’s full of this deeper moments, where characters have sudden revelations about important topics, but ultimately it never really does anything with any of that, and it kind of just hurtles about the place from set-piece to set-piece. This would be fine if it was knowingly absurd or not trying to offer up the deeper stuff and reveled in the fun of its absurdity (kind of like John Wick), but it doesn’t. It thinks it’s offering us more than it can.
A similar sort of thing happened with Batman V Superman. A film that had lots of big, weighty ideas, but said absolutely nothing with them. There’s a level a maturity in filmmaking that is knowingly silly and pure popcorn fodder, compared to a film that thinks it’s giving us profound messages when it can barely string a plot together.
The Fast and the Furious films manages to lean into this odd sort of balance, where the characters and the world of the film is presented and absolutely, deadly serious, but that the entire franchise is somehow winking at the audience. The knowing lack of subtlety allows for the films to become enjoyable on a level that, without that sort of self-awareness, would simple fall apart. It would become tiresome, overblown, and messy.
All of this is important context to understand why I’m talking about this weeks underappreciated trash-tastic masterpiece. There is a skill in producing a work that is so balls to the wall crazy, and so outwardly knowing that it transcends the requirements of subtext, or even coherence.
Alexandre Aja’s 2010 horror/thriller (that’s how Google decides to classify it?) Piranha 3D came about at a point in time where it felt like every mainstream studio horror movie was an ultra-serious, downbeat, gritty “reimagining” of some 70s or 80s cult classic. Indeed, Aja himself delivered one of these starkly dark reboots in 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes. At this point in time Saw had come along and put an end to the glossy, teen-centric Hollywood slashers of the late 90s and early 2000s, and instead we were faced with an outpour of increasingly dour, nasty, violent remakes.
Some of these were great (Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes is an interesting movie to say the least, where there’s a lot to be said about Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead) and some of these were… well, if you can’t say anything nice, it’s best not to say anything at all, right? Let’s just say there’s a reason why the cliché is that remakes are often not as good as the originals. But, regardless of quality, there were a lot of them.
Aja as a director came from the New Fench Extremity movement, with his 2003 cult classic High Tension (or Switchblade Romance for those of us here in the UK). He was drawn into Hollywood after the success of High Tension to write and direct the remake of The Hills Have Eyes.
Director of the original movie, Wes Craven, was the one who actually picked Aja out based on his previous movie, but the film was only ever put into production as a result of the success of other remakes of 70s and 80s horror flicks, most produced under Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company. And almost all of them in that gritty, violent style that seemed to be the go-to for studio horror of the day.
After the flop of Aja’s second American movie, Mirrors (itself a sort of remake of the South Korean horror Into the Mirror) Aja moved onto Piranha 3D.
Piranha 3D is sort of a remake of Joe Dante directed 1978 original, in that it uses elements of that films script, but really what it is, in my opinion at least, is a gloriously trash satire of the entire culture of Hollywood released horror reboots of the time.
Despite it’s rather shocking moments of genuine gore, Aja’s movie seems far more interested in the excess and absurdity of itself than it does being genuinely scary. It’s cast is one of the most bafflingly prestigious yet trashy casts ever assembled, where it’s constant gleeful brashness, purely gratuitous nudity, and absolutely hilarious disinterest in realism only goes to further heighten the knowing silliness of everything on displace.
It is well and truly and absolute masterpiece of trash. Where all other horror remakes of the time were busy trying to find the most violent or shocking imagery they could to boost their exposure, Piranha 3D features a final act of such extremity and absurdness, with so many blink and you’ll miss ‘em moments of outrageous gore (including a woman having her face ripped off after getting her hair caught in the propeller of a boat) that it moves beyond shockingly horrific and becomes laugh out loud ridiculous.
And where it works is in the fact that the film knows it is not to be taken seriously. This is made no clearer than in its opening sequence, which features Richard Dreyfess as a lone fisherman and first victim of the deadly fish, sending up and subverting his iconic role as Hooper is Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Meanwhile, Christopher Lloyd shows up as an absurdly knowledgeable pet shop owner, while Eli Roth makes an appearance as a DJ, Adam Scott as a marine biologist, Elizabeth Shue and Ving Rhames star as the Sheriff and the Deputy respectively, and model Kelly Brook and pornstar Riley Steele round out the cast.
The film doesn’t even both to attempt to offer any sense of resolution or closure, and instead opts to go with a ridiculous gag involving even bigger deadly fish. So absolutely uninterested is Aja and the filmmakers is presenting us with anything other than pure excess and hilarity, that it genuinely baffles me this wasn’t and isn’t recognized as more of masterpiece of trashy B-Movie wonderment.
Many critics seemed to miss what Aja’s joke is here. The film doesn’t care about making sense or delivering on character arcs, satisfying plot beats, or even genuine scares, but rather it simply wants to present to us how stupid, how excessive, how gloriously trashy and absurd the entire mainstream end of the genre had become at that point. It’s highlighting the ridiculousness by being ridiculous, and showing us that with just a little tweaking this movies don’t have to be dark, depressing, pseudo-poignant outings that treat their subject matter like it’s the most serious thing in the world. They can also be bright, funny, popcorn entertainment.
And it’s on that final point that Piranha 3D well and truly delivers. So fun is this film that I often struggle to see why everyone wasn’t just totally wrapped up in its insanity. It’s absolute popcorn fodder, and no one is asking you switch your brain off for it.