PIRANHA PART TWO: THE SPAWNING

john cribbs

 

"I'm more worried about piranhas. Did you see that movie where they send a nuclear submarine to fight the piranhas, and one of them swims right down the periscope and bites the guy in the eye, and he goes, 'Aah! Aah! Aah!', and that old lady told him it would happen?" - Milhouse Van Houten

Today Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3-D hits theaters. I've been excited for it ever since seeing the preview play in front of Avatar, during which the guy behind me who had clapped for the Knight and Day preview announced out loud "Tsk. Stupid!" I'm a big fan of Joe Dante's 1978 film and was encouraged to see that Aja had taken some obvious visual cues from the original movie (particularly the shot of the girl getting pulled down through the hole of a floating tube). But what really sold me was his clever compromising of the movie's title. Obviously, it's being called Piranha 3-D because it's Piranha...in 3-D...but knowing what an affectionate horror fan he is, I'd like to think that Aja had a double meaning in mind and always considered his the third official film in the Piranha series. That would make this one of the longest-awaited sequels of all time, since it's arriving 29 years after the last entry: James Cameron's 1981 directorial debut Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.

One of my favorite anecdotes about screenwriting comes from the Piranha dvd commentary by Joe Dante and Jon Davison. They're talking about hiring John Sayles to fix the movie's unfilmable original script. The problem with the first draft, they explain, was that the writer could never think of a reason to get the people in the water once the piranhas had been discovered. His solution was to have a bear come out of the woods to chase the children from a summer camp into the water. And he couldn't figure out a way to motivate the bear to do that, so he came up with a forest fire which would drive the bear to chase the children into the water to be eaten by the piranhas. I always think of this story whenever I get worried about overcomplicating a script I'm writing with absurd amounts of logic or mundane character motivations. But now that I've seen Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, I realize that the original writer of the first movie could have saved himself the worry of getting the ravenous fish to his characters if he had simply had enough innovation to create flying piranhas. It makes me wonder if he ever ended up seeing the sequel to Dante's film and slapping himself on the head: "That's it! Flying piranhas! What the fuck was I thinking?!"

Yes, the little chompers of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning can fly. They weren't sprinkled with fairy dust while thinking lovely thoughts; they don't wear capes like Superman; they do not require passports or need to check their little fish bags at the gate. Not content with being a sequel to a knock-off of the then-six year old Jaws, the movie also decided to replace Hitchcock's Birds with winged fish - they just have wings that make them literally fly around like birds. This is helpful in the movie's big set piece where the tourists of a faux-classy beach resort are gathered near the water at night (the piranha also hate sunlight, like a bunch of scaly vampires) only to become one big shrieking piranha buffet. Some of the retreating nuggets come up with the clever idea of diving into the hotel pool to escape the swooping munchers, but foolish morsels - do you think the flapping fishies won't be able to resort to their original form and dive in after you? You've played right into their webbed hands!

Without the participation of James Cameron, this would be a glorious Video Oddity. Unfortunately since he had to go and get all respectable it's become a punchline in every article written about the director from Terminator on. I think that's what kept me from seeing the movie until now: if it had been directed by, say, James Sbardellati I would have experienced it long ago. Besides that, it's a pretty empty joke considering this is a better movie than Titanic, Avatar and the part in Terminator 2 where Schwarzenegger says "I need a vacation." It's filled with a lot of the stuff Cameron would return to: the estranged married couple who still do ocean-related work together like in The Abyss, the government company who puts everyone in jeopardy in their quest to create "the perfect killing organism" a'la Aliens, and characters diving around a sunken barge that might as well be the Titanic, or any of the ships the director became obsessed with during his post-Oscar hiatus. The most recognizable Cameron contribution is the casting of the great Lance Henrikson (Jennifer 8, Jennifer's Body, Sasquatch Mountain), best known up to that time as a recurring character actor in Sidney Lumet movies.

This sequel borrows even more from Jaws than Dante's movie. Henriksen plays the Chief Brody role of the beach town cop, although his conflicted feelings over working with his wife get in the way of his trying to convince the powers that be to stop the piranhas. And like the first Piranha, the powers that be are represented in The Spawning by a greedy corporate asshole who ignorantly refuses to believe there's any danger and lets people "go swimming anyway" in the traditional Murray Hamilton role. The movie features its own Ahab/Quint character obsessed with taking the piranhas down after he discovers the munched-upon body of his son late in the movie. He rigs up dynamite and suits up with a shotgun, stating "I'm gonna get dem fish!" (spoiler: he doesn't do a very good job). There are even lines that amusingly reference Spielberg's popular fish flick, such as the lead actress declaring "It wasn't a shark, it wasn't a barracuda, it wasn't a moray eel, and it wasn't a jealous husband!" in homage to Matt Hooper's semi-famous bit in the morgue (there's also a scene set in the morgue - after she says the line there's even a guy with an accent who says something that sounds like "She's had a hell of a shark!") The funny thing is that the first scene mirrors the opening of Jaws 2 - technically, it's a sequel to a rip-off so it should be ripping off the sequel, right? The difference is that the first scene of Piranha Two is much more inspired: instead of just having two divers get devoured, it's a male and female diver who go down to a sunken ship at night to have sex! You have to give Cameron credit for that one, transplanting the old "unsuspecting couple parked on Lover's Hill" routine to the depths of the ocean. The end of the movie also borrows an element of the second Jaws - a man in a helicopter over the water - and improves upon it. Instead of having the whirly bird attacked by the monster(s), the filmmakers have Henriksen piloting it, finding his missing son who (in a huge coincidence) is unknowingly sitting in a boat directly above an imminent underwater explosion, and jumping right out of the helicopter into the water. Don't need that any more!

Sadly these two kind of amazing bookend moments sandwich a pretty unremarkable movie. I guess if you like boobs and flying killer fish you've got no reason to complain, but there's nary a sign of the creative low budget charm that elevated Dante's film. It needed a Kevin McCarthy or Dick Miller or Keenan Wynn to bring something extra to the standard formula characters. I found the female protagonist hard to sympathize with - for one thing, she flat-out refuses to help people who are being killed not once but twice! The first time she watches from the safety of the hotel as the Quint character gets revenge on the piranhas by feeding himself to them, and during the climax she bails out of the sunken ship while her buddy is getting the skin from his legs stripped off ("well at least they're just eating my legs and you can pull me out, Anne. Anne?...Anne?!") She hooks up with another guy despite the fact that she's still married to Henriksen and doesn't seem too upset when he walks in on them, but I guess they have a pretty complicated relationship otherwise he wouldn't leap out of a helicopter and let it crash into the ocean to save his family. Then the wife is forced to grab onto the anchor of Henriksen's ship as it's rushing away from the explosion, which was pretty cool.

Let's make sure we have the title right everybody: it's Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, like The Godfather Part II or The Karate Kid Part II (it puts on no air of pretension - no roman numerals). It's surprising that there haven't been more piranha-themed movies in the last 30 years. Movie piranhas are basically the zombies of the sea, mindlessly cannibalizing anything they see and spreading like a wildfire (is blowing up the ship they originated from days later really going to destory them all forever?) Much as I enjoy the old school rod puppet effects, I'm curious to see what Aja can do with digital piranhas.

In conclusion, James Cameron has said this is "the best flying piranha movie ever made." Somebody should make a new flying piranha movie. Paul Greengrass, pick up the ball.

 

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