Mere words cannot describe how awesomely gnarly "Piranha 3D" is, how hugely entertaining, and how urgently you must get yourself to the theater to see it. Like, now.
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This is not a joke, by the way. This movie is a complete blast. To borrow a phrase from the kind of B-horror flicks to which "Piranha 3D" is such a loving and effective homage: Run, don't walk.
Like "Snakes on a Plane," which came out in the dead of summer four years ago, "Piranha 3D" knows exactly what it is and does exactly what it should do. It's about piranhas ... in 3-D. Do you really need to know anything else?
It's cleverly knowing without collapsing into parody. It makes great use of its extremely random cast, including Elisabeth Shue in an unusually bad-ass role as a sheriff, Ving Rhames as her deputy and Jerry O'Connell as a Joe Francis type. Christopher Lloyd has one great scene in full-on, crazed Christopher Lloyd mode as the resident fish expert. The second you see Eli Roth — playing the emcee at a wet T-shirt contest, no less — you know some hideous fate will befall him. And then there's Richard Dreyfuss, who makes a very cute cameo off the top. That's all we'll say.
But the whole point of this kind of movie is the gore, and French director Alexandre Aja finds hilarious and creative ways to kill off his characters. Not a huge surprise, given his previous movies — the suspenseful "High Tension" and a Wes Craven-approved remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" — but here, there's a lightness and a sense of fun about the carnage. If that makes sense.
Besides, partying provides the premise for the film. It's spring break at Lake Victoria, Ariz. — really Lake Havasu — and hordes of drunk, horny college students have arrived to trash their perfect bodies. But there's something swimming in the water that can do that much more efficiently. Actually, there are thousands upon thousands of them. The piranhas have razor-sharp teeth and ferocious eyes, but they almost look as if they're smiling as they prepare to tear into some unsuspecting fool's flesh. A seismic shift beneath the lake created a rift that unleashed these prehistoric creatures. Now they're here, and they're hungry.
In classic horror-movie fashion, the victims get picked off one by one. Sheriff Julie Forester (Shue) and Deputy Fallon (Rhames) discover the first body and call in the scientific experts, led by Adam Scott (cast against type). But containing the fish is as difficult as stopping the partyers from dancing on boats in their bikinis to generic house music. And so when the inevitable bloodbath happens — and oh yes, it does happen — it's vast and horrifying but with some giddy glimmers of absurdity sprinkled throughout.
Stuck in the middle of this are Julie's three kids, the eldest of whom, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), has become an impromptu crew member on a "Girls Gone Wild"-style video shoot. Yes, there is plenty of nudity and girl-on-girl action here, but again, it's used with a wink and a smile. "Piranha 3D" knows it needs to titillate on every level.
Visually, though, it was shot in 2-D and then converted to add a third dimension, but it looks better than other films that have followed the same path, including M. Night Shyamalan's muddled "The Last Airbender." Still, some of the underwater mayhem is a bit hard to make out, especially when the fish are doing their damage in darkened caves.
But Aja mostly employs the 3-D precisely as he should with this genre: in totally gimmicky, gratuitous ways. A guy sprays beer from a keg and it shoots right at you. A girl has too many tequila shots and yacks off the side of the boat and into your lap. And of course there are the fish, zooming right at you to take a bite.
There could be a moral to this story: Don't go to the lake and act like a cheesy, drunk idiot during spring break. But that would be no fun.
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