"This is what it's all about, man. Beer, sun, and making videos of naked bitchezzzz." So goes the macho, heterosexual motto of Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), a Girls Gone Wild exploitation filmmaker whose words sink right into the heart of Alexandre Aja's sexy, scary, funny, relentless, and (best of all) rigorously intelligent Piranha 3D, a meta-film that flat-out, pound-for-pound beats the shit out of The Expendables and its limp-wristed self-awareness. Clearly Aja's doppleganger, Derrick functions as a satirical, self-reflexive character embodying the self-loathing and moral uncertainties Aja feels for his own work; the character almost makes up for Aja's deplorable High Tension, a film that equated both female sexuality and repressed lesbianism with it's grimy, overweight male serial killer. No, now Aja has found his form, style, and soul - necessarily following up his tacky, unwatchable Dario Argento impersonation Mirrors with a film that would impress the great Italian director, if not make him proud. Aja seems to have taken to heart Argento's line about the women in his films: "I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man." Like Argento, Aja feels compelled to kill the very thing that arouses him. And with Piranha 3D, not only does he kill, but he creates the greatest horror film of the post-CGI era, finally finding a way to implement the technology with a suitable narrative.
The disrespect for the horror film stems primarily from bourgeois aesthetic values, misunderstanding the genre's subversive elements (female autonomy, feminized male, re-contextualized anxieties) as somehow merely callous misanthropy and misogyny. At its best, horror uses archetypal characters to confront psycho-sexual and social order, often challenging its very foundation. The post-modern horror film (beginning with Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1993), then catapulted by the same director's Scream (1996) uses self-awareness to make further subversions, commenting on itself, even explicitly through dialogue and allusion. Having hit a rut since the implementation of a new technology, it's only necessary that the genre has wavered in recent years under a series of simply terrible, derivative entries (The Unborn, Shutter, Dead Silence) to literal-minded remakes (My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Last House on the Left, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) to effective, but blatant homages (Drag Me to Hell, House of the Devil, The Devil's Rejects). It's as though Aja has encompassed all of this as a horror connoisseur and actually stepped ahead, looking forward rather back.
That's not to say that Piranha 3D doesn't have a great appreciation for its form's history. Much of the cast functions as a way to recall their earlier horror roles (Elizabeth Shue from Hollow Man, Jerry O'Connell from Scream 2, Ving Rhames from Dawn of the Dead, Richard Dreyfuss from Jaws, even Eli Roth satirizing himself). The lakeside town's sheriff is Julie Forrester (Elizabeth Shue), alluding to the unforgettable, maternal Marge Gunderson from Fargo, but altered for the modern, metropolitan world. Forrester has no time for dogmas. Early in the film, after wrecking a street sign and let off with a warning, a smart-assed teenager comments that he wishes "you would take me home." He touches her uniform, violating not just law and decorum, but her sexuality. The transgression draws out Forrester's physical prowess, slamming the punk on the car. She's sexy, but tough. It's an important distinction for the film's later focus: fragile feminine beauty. Her son Jake (Steven R. McQueen) doesn't have her toughness. He's stuck in a rut of adolescence and manhood, attracted to his long time friend Kelly (Jessica Szohr), but really in awe of the unthinkably beautiful Danni (Kelly Brook). The androgynous name functions almost as a pun, given Jake's (and Aja's) perception of her as the pinnacle of female beauty. Unfortunately for Jake, he's been saddled with babysitting his younger siblings and forced to forgo his foray at the apex of heterosexual, frat/sorority house paradise: spring break.
The script by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg deftly layers the soon-to-come carnage and mayhem with a base of characters spanning four sets of psychology/age groups. The little ones (about 10) seek freedom after negotiating money out of their older brother; they want to be rid of their constraining shackles, not for sexual reasons, but their individuality. Likewise, Jake wants autonomy, but purely of a sexual nature; rid of the kids and his mom's overseeing eye, he's free to literally hop aboard a lecherous vessel, to relish the flesh he's only been able to see on the internet, until now. Watching Danni and her friend swim naked through a pane of glass in the bottom of the boat, Derrick exuberantly says "Man, just look at those chicks. They look like beautiful fish. If fish had tits like that, I would fuck fish!" Outrageously, the line is payed off in a later gag where Derrick does, in a manner of speaking, get to fuck fish (or is it the other way around?). Nevertheless, the line also expresses Jake's sexual anxieties. He's not sure what women are - they might as well be fish to his inexperience. Moreover, the clearly experienced Danni, tanned and shaped to idolized perfection, represents the other side of the line, where adolescence turns to adult. Her sexuality frightens Jake (and Aja). The fourth line is Sheriff Forrester, who's almost past the point of sexuality, much more concerned with protecting (both on the local and domestic level). She's a single mother. The "head of the house" role necessarily masculinizes her. The film's carefully plotted sexual/societal set-up not only deserves approval, but praise in an era that views horror films as mere exercises is style, tone, and human degradation. Aja and his writers layer the horror with an astute context and humanity.
For all of Aja's effort to give the narrative a wallop, it's easy to say he wants the scares/gore to be tenfold as effective. On the whole, his effort is astounding for its ability to navigate scenes with clarity. Forgoing the socio-political explanation Joe Dante used for the piranha in his original film, Aja uses the freakish fish as a geographical anomaly, where a small earthquake opens up enough land beneath the lake to allow these two million! year old demons to roam unabated. Given his attention to the film's cast and characters, the explanation works just fine - and it works even better after the film's central carnage sequence, as hundreds on piranha close in on hundreds of joyful, drunken teens - teens who ignore order to pursue their hedonistic rebellion. As for visual flair, Aja's not lacking in style. It's here that his CGI finally finds its proper place. Literal mayhem occurs. Teens fall from boats, rafts and piers to escape carnivorous grasp. Piranha tear people to shreds - the CGI hits a nice balance of morbid camp and genuine horror. This is chaos the likes of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. A frightened kid gets in a boat, attempting to drive to safety, but kills likely 25 people in his path, the worst involving a girl's hair stuck in the propellers. A platform that just hosted a wet-t-shirt contest tips over with dramatic grandiosity a al Titanic, putting dozens more at risk. Finally, shore patrolman Novak (Adam Scott) grabs a shotgun, hops on a jet ski, and rides off blasting. Miraculously, Novak's heroism is shown in brief, unbroken takes, actually allowing him to hop on a jet ski, start driving, cock his shotgun, and fire without cutting - a virtuoso, kinetic action moment leaps and bounds beyond anything in The Expendables. Aja's ability to navigate the chaotic milieu announces him as a true visual artist. Cinematically, it's among the finest of any film from 2010.
On the opposite end of the shore, Jake's ultimately able to confront his ascension into sexual manhood by taking control of his own errors and misdeeds, saving Kelly from sure death. Aja, perhaps unable to make his, must watch his beautiful heroines die (all of them), sparing only Kelly (due to her modesty) and the sheriff (because of her masculine qualities). Aja has difficulty with his sexual idiosyncrasies, but it's okay. He's exploring them in a horror film to redefine the genre - everything must now be referred to post-Piranha 3D. Self-realization is the first step to progression.