In a tongue-in-cheek nod to Spielberg, the film opens with a cameo by Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss as a fisherman who is attacked by a school of piranhas on an otherwise serene lake. You see, an earthquake has opened up a passage beneath the lake to a creepy cave filled with the blighters.
We're in Lake Victoria, Ariz., a tiny, beautiful hamlet of 5,000 on an equally lovely lake.
Unfortunately for the town and its sheriff, Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), it's spring break and the lake has been besieged by thousands of sex-, booze-, and beach-jonesing college kids eager to shed their clothes and their inhibitions. Aja slides into serious soft-core porn territory, his cameras closely caressing every bikini-clad coed in sight. The crowd gyrates and yelps in some kind of collegiate fertility dance.
Things get creepier with the entrance of sleazy porn producer Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell) and his two-woman harem. In a stroke of cinema synchronicity, Derrick hires the sheriff's eldest son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of late great movie star Steve McQueen), to scout locations for his next Girls Gone Wild-esque flick.
That's about as complex as the plot gets.
About halfway through the film, the loud, loutish college kids get their own when the piranhas show up.
Sounds awful, no? Somehow, Aja manages to turn this ugly beast into a beautifully choreographed 3D tone poem about lust, sex, death, and mayhem.
The picture owes much of its success to Aja's ruthless editorial scalpel. As in his 2003 breakout hit High Tension, he strips away all the inessential prattle that makes most monster flicks such unwatchable dross.
There are no attempts to make the story seem more rational or plausible with chin-scratcher monologues by sincerehead scientists.
There are no lachrymose backstories about the hero. Sheriff Forester isn't a recovering alcoholic, traumatized war vet, or disgraced big-city cop trying to redeem herself. She's not in an abusive relationship.
We know nothing about her except the essentials: She's a competent, take-charge cop who loves her kids.
Most refreshing still, there's a conspicuous absence of sentimentality, the gooey glue that holds together so many bad films.
Aja's film is entirely about bodies in motion. Unhappily, this also means it is devoid of the qualities that made Jaws a masterpiece - memorable characters.
Aja does manage to sneak in, in a gruesome, eye-gouging, limb-ripping kind of way, a social message: The same hypersexualized men and women who see each other as nothing but flesh are ripped apart by equally voracious predators. (The film sure gives the phrase "meat market" a whole new meaning.)
A moral to the story? Then again, that could just be another one of the film's many in-jokes.
Aja's frequent ironic nod to the great gorefests of yore and his insider jokes make you wonder if Piranha 3D isn't some kind of PoMo deconstruction of American genre films - after all, that's been a preoccupation of overeducated French visitors since Alexis de Tocqueville.
Is it a critique of American hedonism and the films, TV shows, and music that propagate it?
Sure, why not.
What really matters is that the film works. It's a genuinely suspenseful, no-holds-barred masterpiece of sex 'n' horror exploitation.
Piranha 3D ***½ (out of four stars)
Directed by Alexandre Aja. With Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, Jerry O'Connell, Adam Scott, Eli Roth, Steven R. McQueen, and Richard Dreyfuss. Distributed by Dimension Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sequences of strong bloody horror, violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug use)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.