Piranha 3-D -- the third film in the killer fish series -- made it to number four when I ranked the summer sequels a few weeks ago. It's been a long time coming. The last Piranha movie came out almost 30 years ago, and a young unknown filmmaker named James Francis Cameron directed the high-flying second film in the series, Piranha II: The Spawning. It's the only Piranha movie I've seen. And I thought it was the only one I ever needed to see.
Flesh-eating fish attacking the residents of Lake Victoria a la Jaws ... that's one thing. Flesh-eating fish attacking the residents of Lake Victoria in 3-D ... that may be something else entirely. As long as the filmmakers know what they're doing, of course. (I have no illusions: They probably don't. But let's keep it positive around here, OK?) Don't get me wrong, 3-D doesn't always change the game for me. But there is a guilty-pleasure novelty to this kind of movie I find pleasing. It's something in the air; it reeks of Limburger. But that's OK. I can deal.
This may have come as upsetting news to Roger Ebert. Last week Ebert blasted the 3-D revolution in a piece he wrote for Newsweek. He isn't completely against the format (he has nothing but praise for the 3-D work in Avatar, courtesy of Mr. Piranha II), but he is wary of Hollywood's rocket-wagon rush toward the third dimension. "I'm not opposed to 3-D as an option," Ebert wrote, "I'm opposed to it as a way of life for Hollywood." He made some strong points that even proponents of the format (like Jeffrey Katzenberg) would agree with.
In his argument Ebert mentioned movies like Casablanca, Fargo, and Precious -- films he says would not really benefit from an enhanced 3-D experience. I tend to agree. But there are some movies that surely would benefit from a quality 3-D treatment. Look, some movies don't have the benefit of good writing. Or acting. Or sound logic. Some movies are so poorly conceived that they need the cheap thrill of 3-D. Take, for example, Snakes on a Plane.
Snakes on a Plane should have been supremely awesome. It wasn't. It was tame, boring, and uncommitted. Imagine you go to a circus, excited to see the lion. But the curtains open and it's just some lion. Sleeping. Maybe a yawn. That was Snakes on a Plane. I wanted a circus lion; instead I got the zoo.
When you're making a movie, you have to understand the sandbox you're mussing around in. I don't think the team behind Snakes on a Plane (Samuel L. Jackson notwithstanding) really understood what they had. This was made clear when they tried changing the title to the less-campy, more blah-sounding Pacific Air Flight 121. When they did that, it was clear to me they were absolutely clueless. I mean, they had to know they weren't making Air Force One. If anything, they had something closer to Soul Plane. The Internet and Jackson clamored and (give them credit for this, at least) the studio changed the title back to Snakes on a Plane. I mean, it's Snakes on a Plane! Don't get me wrong, they could have changed a lot to make it better. Silly 3-D snake-jumping-at-the-screen cheese would have made it a heck of a lot more tolerable.
But -- again -- they didn't understand what they had.
I think maybe the folks behind Piranha 3-D do. The title itself shows promise. See, it's the THIRD film in a horror TRILOGY and it's being shot in 3-D. Piranha 3-D! Get it? DO YOU GET IT?!?!? It's right out of the Jaws 3-D playbook, and if you're going to rip off a movie, you might as well steal it's name too. Moreover, it works and this is easier said than done. Note: This summer also gives us Step Up 3-D. One title is mildly amusing and the other is aggressively lame. Sometimes it's not how you are but who you are.
I think the cast could have been a little cheesier and fun (where the hell is Betty White, damnit?), but casting Christopher Lloyd as some sort of piranha expert is very promising indeed. Because who doesn't buy that?
Critics will get all smug about the gory, in-your-face thriller moments, calling it lazy. I call it giving people what they want. If this movie is something in the vein of Lake Placid, where the filmmakers are clearly winking in our direction, then we're in for a fun night at the movies. It can be a tricky balance, though: Try harder, but not too hard.
When the Snakes on a Plane online hysteria was at its peak, they delayed the movie. Why? To reshoot more snake violence because they realized they didn't make the movie fans were expecting; they didn't make the movie they should have made. They were supposed to make something so bat-guano crazy the levels of fun would make our eyeballs explode in unison. They couldn't even do that. The film played it way too safe. Team SOAP didn't understand that they didn't really need to hide the film's deficiencies, they should have exploited them. And what better way to exploit than in the third dimension?
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Dre writes for Film.com weekly.