Like many other critics, I dragged myself to a Friday morning matinee and bought a ticket to see the unpromising Piranha 3D, which Dimension did not screen for the press. It had everything working against it: it was a remake, an August horror film, and in 3D. The Weinsteins barely even made any publicity materials available for it. That meant it just had to be garbage, right? Nope. I came out happily surprised, and I was not the only one. The film currently has some of the best reviews of the summer.
The general consensus is that it gets just the right tone, which is playful and happy-go-lucky. A movie can go far on that. It doesn't have to be particularly smart. Piranha 3D doesn't really have much to say about pollution or pop culture. It's brisk and well-paced, and it has a sunny, summery feel. It's unbelievably gory and not shy about being sexy. It manages to pay tribute to Jaws in one scene without actually re-creating a scene from Jaws (the audience has to understand the connection). But the real key is that it manages to invite the audience into this good time, rather than simply having a good time in front of an audience. It's the same attitude that managed to lure the good, strong cast to the production. (You've no doubt seen the Funny or Die "For Your Consideration" video.)
If Piranha 3D had tried to be serious and straightforward, like The Expendables did, it would have been a dud. It seems to me that this year's most interesting movies have been the ones that have kept it short, light and fun (not necessarily in that order). Consider Daybreakers, The Book of Eli, The Crazies, Kick Ass, Hot Tub Time Machine, The Losers, Splice, Survival of the Dead, Predators, The Last Exorcism, and to some extent, the silly blockbuster Iron Man 2, and Luc Besson's pair of weightless French actioners District 13: Ultimatum and From Paris with Love. These are the movies that the great film critic Manny Farber would have called "termite art," as opposed to "white elephant art." These movies all seemed to take into account that the audience was actually there, and that we were made up of thinking, feeling beings. We had paid our money and expected to have some fun; the fun was had because we could participate.
Then consider something like Robin Hood, which was so serious and ponderous that it was nearly sleep-inducing (and as "white elephant" as you can get). And that movie was not the only culprit this year. Both it and A Nightmare on Elm Street tried to add depth and weight to already familiar characters by adding all kinds of backstory and forgetting about things like action and suspense. Don't even get me started on Prince of Persia, Jonah Hex, The Last Airbender or Salt.
There's certainly a place for seriousness in movies, but that seriousness has to be felt, rather than told. If an audience can feel the weight of a scene, then there's nothing better, but if the audience is told that a scene is heavy, then it's insulting. Most filmmakers these days are into telling: "this is a very important moment, so pay attention." I can't think of a better example of a heavy scene done right than the incredible incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, which is currently the year's top hit. Sure, it's an expensive, high profile movie, and not exactly a "B" film, but it gets it. It's funny and fleet-footed, and when it comes time for that incredible moment of collective heaviness, it barely lifts a finger. It comes down to the simple grasping of hands.
Of course, I can't get away without mentioning Inception, which seems to fall in the middle of this discussion, and about which I was in the middle. I thought it was a nice combination of brainy and brain-dead, with lots of big explosions and chases to accompany its interesting sci-fi idea, but the film's presentation and hype led to utterly serious responses from nearly everyone. It was either the greatest film ever made, or the worst. That's too serious for me. Give me Piranha 3D any day.
What do you think, readers?