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Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
I am sure you do not remember this, but you’re going to have to trust me that when Piranha 3D came out, 11 years ago, on Aug. 20, 2010, it was mildly controversial in the movie world. And, sort of hilariously, it wasn’t the "piranha" part that was controversial; it was the "3D" part. Aug. 20, was but a mere nine months after the thunderous release of Avatar, which became the highest-grossing movie of all time and essentially gave us a full half-decade-plus of 3D movies and, more to the point, 3D surcharges.
3D, of course, had been a part of the movies for decades, but with Avatar, and James Cameron’s use of breakthrough technology, it was no longer thought to be for schlock: It was for art. And Cameron, who was riding even higher at this point than he was after Titanic, was repulsed, repulsed, by anyone who would use his great 3D technology for anything other than Great Art.
Cameron, who let us not forget made his directorial debut with 1982’s schlocky Piranha II: The Spawning, had evolved as a filmmaker. When Piranha 3D was released, Cameron was promoting a re-release of Avatar and praising what he saw as an ambitious 3D “renaissance,” with movies like Tron: Legacy and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo on the horizon. 3D, according to Cameron, was good now. He had some very unkind words to say about Piranha 3D, though.
“I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3D,” Cameron told Vanity Fair. “Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3D horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, like Friday the 13th 3D. When movies got to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity and at the last gasp of their financial lifespan, they did a 3D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip.”
Piranha 3D “cheapens the medium.” Honestly, they should have put that on the poster.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The cast, right from the get-go, was a good sign. Piranha 3D had a downright splendid cast for a movie about piranhas attacking beachgoers in 3D: Elisabeth Shue. Adam Scott. Ving Rhames. Christopher Lloyd. Richard Dreyfuss! Everybody makes some movies to get some cash, but a movie about piranhas attacking beachgoers in 3D that assembles that cast has some idea of what it is doing. Scott, who had just joined the cast of Parks & Recreation, the hippest comedy of 2010, made it clear that this was the “fun” kind of cheesy piranha movie.
The movie was also boosted by some outside publicity. A character played by Jerry O’Connell was so obviously based on Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis that Francis threatened the studio with a lawsuit, which just got more people talking about Piranha 3D. Considering how much the culture had turned on Francis — and has continued to; last time anyone heard from him he was being arrested in Mexico on a domestic violence charge — having a scene where a character inspired by him got his penis bitten off by a piranha was worth millions in free advertising right there.
What was the impact? Critics were… so excited! Christy Lemire, the film critic for the Associated Press, said, “Run, don't walk: Piranha 3D is hilariously, cleverly gory. Mere words cannot describe how awesomely gnarly Piranha 3D is, how hugely entertaining, and how urgently you must get yourself to the theatre to see it. Like, now.” That’s quite a rave! (Avatar sure didn’t get that rave.) The movie was more fun, or at least more desirable, to film critics than it was for audiences, though: It finished sixth its opening weekend and barely cracked $40 million in the United States. It was still probably enough to make its money back, but at those margins, it probably wasn’t much worth spending so much for that cast anyway.
Tellingly, like Avatar, no one really talks about it anymore. At the time, 3D felt like the future. Now, though, it just feels like something everyone briefly had fun with for a couple of years a decade ago and then moved on from entirely. Piranha 3D was dumb fun, but, ironically, there wasn’t much depth to it.
Has it held up? The 3D scenes have aged poorly, like every other 3D movie you watch at home now: It’s just not that exciting to see a fish with angry teeth floating at you. And the nihilist, gory in-joke humor of the whole enterprise doesn’t land as well either. It really doesn’t say much to satirize Joe Francis in 2021. Many of the jokes are of the “you had to be there” variety.
There is nevertheless a cheekiness, an eh-who-cares-let’s-just-be-silly vibe that is entirely missing from movies today. It’s silly in a disposable, harmless way, sort of what Snakes on a Plane was trying to do but failed. And more to the point: It sure feels more honest about 3D than James Cameron ever was. The history of 3D isn’t movies like Avatar. The history of 3D is schlock like this because the history of movies is schlock like this. Nobody watches 3D movies anymore, and nobody watches Piranha 3D anymore. But no one really watches Avatar anymore, either.