James Cameron Puts The Verbal Smackdown On ‘Piranha 3D,’ But Does He Have A Point?

James Cameron has been talking, as is his wont. The supremely knowledgeable filmmaker has been doing the press circuit in support of this past weekend’s re-release of “Avatar” on 3-D screens. It was inevitable that someone would eventually ask him about “Piranha 3D.” After all, “Piranha II: The Spawning” was his directorial debut… sort of. So when asked about the new 3-D release during an interview with Vanity Fair, Cameron let loose with his opinion.

“You’ve got to remember: I worked on ’Piranha 2′ for a few days and got fired off of it; I don’t put it on my official filmography. So there’s no sort of fond connection for me whatsoever. In fact, I would go even farther and say that… I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but [’Piranha 3D’] is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like ’Friday the 13th 3-D.’ When movies got to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity and at the last gasp of their financial lifespan, they did a 3-D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip. And that’s not what’s happening now with 3-D. It is a renaissance—right now the biggest and the best films are being made in 3-D. Martin Scorsese is making a film in 3-D. Disney’s biggest film of the year—’TRON: Legacy’—is coming out in 3-D. So it’s a whole new ballgame.”

I’m going to overlook that “never… throw other films under the bus” comment — too easy — and focus on the 3-D. With all due respect to Mr. Cameron, and I have much for him, I disagree with the statement that there’s something wrong in some way with “Piranha 3D” throwing back to the bygone days of ’70s and ’80s horror.

Something really special happened with “Avatar.” The story has its share of admirers and critics, but few will argue that the world it exists in is anything less than fully realized. Whatever you may think of the movie, there’s a real accomplishment in terms of how things are presented, an almost “Star Wars”-like (to use one example) level of depth to the various things going on at the periphery of each shot.

There is also, of course, the very basic technical achievement on display, a twofold success both in terms of the lifelife CG characters — those Na’vi don’t just fill a scene, they act — and the digital 3-D. We’ve seen work like it before, but never on this scale. For every scene in which something seems to pop off of the screen and into your face — the original gimmick of the format as it was first conceived — there are a dozen or more shots in which you can see the future of 3-D as something that lends an added sense of physical depth to what you’re seeing.

This is fine. Better than fine, even. It’s a remarkable experience, viewing “Avatar” for the first time, and is probably the main reason the movie is back in theaters right now. Cameron’s approach, elegant though it may be, is not a manifesto for the way of things moving forward.

He argues that movies, serious movies like Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo Cabret” and Disney’s upcoming “TRON: Legacy,” stand as an example of how we should embrace 3-D. “Piranha 3D,” on the other hand, is a throwback to the “bad 3-D horror films of the ’70s and ’80s.” I’m sorry, but really: what exactly is wrong with bad 3-D horror? More to the point, can’t there be room for both?

I really don’t mind reading Cameron interviews where he puts himself at the forefront of what’s cutting edge. He’s earned himself that ego through a lot of hard work and creativity. And whether or not “Avatar” inspired other filmmakers to employ similar tech with “Hugo Cabret,” “TRON: Legacy” and the like, it definitely served as an example of what is possible.

That said, if you’ve seen any of the horror classics in 3-D — hell, any FILM classics in 3-D — and appreciated them, you know that there’s something different going on. The sort of good-bad/so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking that cult fanbases tend to build themselves around. Forgive me, but I happen to like when gouts of blood, a swinging axe or some other horrifying thing seemingly explodes off of the screen and into my face.

I don’t think gimmicky 3-D is the “creative bottom of the barrel,” as Cameron calls it. It’s simply another method, and an older method at that. One which predates “Avatar.” Hell, it predates the initial conception of “Avatar.” Does last year’s trip to Pandora evolve that format into something different? Absolutely. But does that evolution in some way invalidate what’s come before? No, I don’t think so. What do you readers think?