Director Alexander Aja seems a lot harder on his characters than he is on himself. Piranha 3D, a bloodbath spectacular set during spring break debauchery—Hip Shakin’ Mamas in 3D might be more like it, as it boasts more T&A than any studio movie since the 1970s—is not for want of leering objectifiers. Chief among them, however, is the camera itself.
A monster movie should be fun. But for a long time, this one is never more fun than another fast-motion montage of topless women gyrating to generic hip-hop. Bonered boys cheer-on motorboating lesbians; a girl-on-girl underwater ballet/make-out session is scored outrageously to Delibes. “It’s like fish with boobies,” one onlooker remarks. “If fish looked like that,” his friend answers, “I’d only fuck fish.” That friend is Jerry O’Connell, putting his naturally unappealing unctuousness to good use as a Joe Francis stand-in, godfather here of the “Wild Wild Girls” series. Early on, Aja seems to enjoy this depravity as much as the titty-loving villain. But, apparently, he’s only setting up such degeneracy so he can smack it down. This being a horror movie, a man as lecherous as O’Connell can’t escape punishment, and Piranha 3D finally metes it out with glee.
It takes a while to get there, though. It’s tough to see what’s Aja’s up to throughout much of Piranha. At first, the movie seems as guilty of misogyny as the characters it will soon punish. Then, it veers off into a lefty finger-wag (before swinging right again), becoming briefly an environmental parable that uses the piranhas as a means of revenge against a lake-polluting populace. (Christopher Lloyd, the only actor having the appropriate amount of fun, delivers scientific exposition with scenery-chewing relish.) But by the last act it becomes clear Aja’s aim is to punish alcohol-fueled promiscuity—to align himself with the Reagan-era slashermeisters of yore, cementing the conservative credentials he first suggested with his Hills Have Eyes remake. Unleashed by random “seismic activity,” the piranhas become atavistic conveyors of moralizing vengeance on a college-age population whose revelries include a wet t-shirt contest called, ahem, “Dying To Get Wet”. (Eli Roth, naturally, makes a cameo as the contest’s hose-wielder.)
Piranha 3D builds to an epic set piece of stunning carnage, as the piranhas—scary because they’re like a million tiny sharks—drop-in on the spring break festivities, leaving dozens of dead, deformed, blood-soaked casualties in the waters of Lake Victoria; it’s like a glimpse into Jason Voorhies’ wettest dreams. O’Connell gets his comeuppance through castration, his half-chewed penis burped-up by a piranha straight into our faces, thanks to the magic of 3D. Earlier, a girl who has drunk too much tequila vomits right into the camera, a 3D stream of puke comin’ at ya! It’s as though the only thing Aja hates more than the sex-crazed kids in his movie are the sex-crazed kids watching it in the theater.