Let me start out with a spoiler: “Piranha 3D” is awful. If you bought a ticket thinking you were going to see a good horror movie, either you didn’t see the ads, or you missed the movie’s “For Your Consideration” video on Funny or Die, in which the stars ask for some Oscar consideration for this piece of chum. If I wasn’t intending to review this movie for SlashGear, I probably would have seen it anyway, though. I’m a horror fan, and we horror fans accept some of the worst movies in existence as part of our canon, because a truly bad horror movie is one of the best types of truly bad movies around. A bad horror movie can still be fun, exciting, original, even titillating. A bad romantic comedy or a bad drama is simply dull. Bad horror is like bad nachos. Crunchy, cheesy, maybe tasteless, but still nachos.
Before I get to “Piranha 3D,” I have to buy my tickets, and here I noticed a couple things. First, at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon, there is a line at the ticket counter. I have no intention of waiting on line; I almost always buy my tickets from the electronic machine. I stand for a moment and watch the line, trying to figure out who still prefers dealing with a slow-poke, unmotivated high school kid instead of using the machine. More than half the people I watch pay with a card. I can’t figure this out. Is it the user interface on the machines that turn people away? Do they like buying tickets more slowly? Is there a grand tradition of telling a human being what movie you want to see before you enter the theater? I even wonder if people just don’t understand the machines. Maybe they think you have to buy tickets in advance to pick them up at the electronic kiosk. I don’t stick around to ask anyone or find out. I head inside to the ticket machine, where there is no line for either terminal.
Serious sticker shock awaits me. A movie ticket at my theater costs $7.50. First show matinee price is $5. “Piranha 3D” doesn’t qualify, though, because it’s being shown on the so-called XD screen. XD is Cinemark’s answer to IMAX. Frankly, I prefer XD by far. The XD theaters have padded, faux-leather seats and fantastic sound with subwoofers beneath the chairs. The screen is not much larger, but I still think it’s better than my local IMAX, because my local IMAX is a lie. IMAX is supposed to be 10 stories tall with booming sound that shakes the bones in the science center museum. But now most IMAX theaters are actually just normal theaters with closer seats and a slightly bigger screen. At least XD isn’t lying to me. XD is just ripping me off.
The price of an XD ticket is $12. For the privilege of 3D, you pay an extra $2. I paid $14 to see “Piranha 3D.” I could have almost paid for 3 tickets to a normal matinee at the same time. That’s preposterous, and it completely defeats the purpose of this movie.
“Piranha 3D” is about 3 things. It’s about girls getting naked over spring break. It’s about killer fish eating people. And it’s about 3D. Each facet is equally important, and in a way the movie is interesting because it doesn’t just use 3D to improve the experience.
“Avatar” used 3D as a moviemaking technique. The 3D aspect of the movie was important, but it helped to tell the story and create an immersive experience on the lush, alien world. “Avatar” was about immersion. The main characters left their own bodies to immerse their senses in their avatar hosts. 3D was a natural fit.
“Clash of the Titans” used 3D to try to squeeze more money out of an audience nostalgic for a pathetic remake of a cute, stylish classic. That movie wasn’t about 3D, the effect was literally an afterthought. “Step Up 3D” might not have been a good movie, but it was earnest in its use of 3D filming. The movie was about dancing, and the 3D was used, for better or worse, to improve the look and feel of dance routines. Even if the most successful moments had nothing to do with dance, at least there was some honor in the attempt.
In “Piranha 3D,” the director, Alexandre Aja, looks for new ways to thrill with the 3D effects. Most of the time he resorts to what Fozzie Bear, in the MuppetVision 3D movie at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, rightly refers to as “cheap 3D tricks.” When a character on screen turns to the fourth wall and pokes a stick out into the audience’s faces, that’s a 3D trick. For much of “Piranha 3D,” Aja is simply looking for a new stick to poke.
Sometimes, that’s literally a stick, or a boat oar. Sometimes, it’s fish flying out of the screen. Because this movie is 1/3 “Girls Gone Wild,” (literally, the opportunistic soft-core porn angle is a major part of the plot), those cheap 3D tricks involve large breasts breaking the surface of the water as the camera, and the audience, sits below. Besides being titillating, it’s actually a cool looking shot.
Not a cool looking shot? When that stick in the face is the severed genitalia of one of the lead characters, a surely-ashamed Jerry Romijn-O’Connel, who’s character screams in his death throes “It took my . . . !” well, you can fill in the rest.
There is one cool moment of filming in the movie. At one point, the camera flies through some underwater reeds. It was a setting I hadn’t seen before in 3D, and the varying levels of depth and flickering light created a real sensation of claustrophobia. What I’ve learned in forcing myself to see so many 3D movies this season is that 3D is used best to illustrate the setting, not to highlight the characters and the action. The best moments in “Avatar” were the lush, iridescent alien landscapes. The best moments in “Step Up 3D” were the scenes of the cityscape. The only good 3D moment in “Piranha 3D” was an interesting view of an underwater nature scene. Unfortunately, bad CGI destroyed most of the SCUBA diving and underwater action. But for a brief instant, 3D actually lends the movie some atmosphere.
It’s ruined by blood. Literally. Aja films too many scenes in “Piranha 3D” in a body of water stained red by gallons of blood. This doesn’t work with modern 3D technology. The glasses already dim the bright light on screen, like you’re wearing sunglasses. Underwater, things get more dark. Stain the water red, and it’s impossible to see what’s going on. Because 3D movies are really a trick of the eye, the director has to offer the audience plenty of light to see the subject and a bit of time for our eyes to adjust. Aja is too interested in keeping things frenetic, which might lend itself to the species of fish, but not to good moviemaking.
In the end, I can’t really complain about how horrible “Piranha 3D” is because I knew it would be bad. It isn’t supposed to be a good movie, but it also isn’t very fun. A bad horror movie can still have moments of originality and tension, but this movie is just bad with no redeeming qualities. One of the only surprising moments of the entire film, in fact the very last second of the movie, is completely ruined by the commercials. I sat there waiting for the moment to occur, and when it hadn’t happened by the time the story is resolved, I knew it had either been cut or it was about to happen at the very last. Unfortunately, I was right.
Worst of all, though, is the price tag. For $5, I would have no problem seeing “Piranha 3D.” I might even recommend it to a crowd interested in gore, naked college girls with low self-esteem, and Elizabeth Shue completionists. For $7.50, I’d tell the Shue fans to stay home, but it’s still a fun diversion. For $14, I was ready to grab that stupid oar sticking out at my face and smack Ving Rhames upside the head for asking me to pay to sit through this mindless dreck.