Friday, September 17, 2010


There's a certain trope in cinema that tells a cautionary tale of what befalls nice, middle-class white people who venture beyond their urban habitat into the wild natural environment. If done well (ie with violence and boobies) this ends up as something like 'Slave of the Cannibal God'. If done badly (ie with resolutely clothed idiots stomping uneventfully around the jungle) it ends up as 1972's 'Piranha'.

Our film opens in Caracas, as Arthur, a diamond-seeking tourist, and his sister Terry, a photographer, arrive to go on a tour of the Venezulan wilderness. Their guide is an expatriate named Jim. They set off on their motorbikes, and eventually meet Caribe, an American hunter who has gone native. He offers to show them the depths of the jungle, and when they accept things start to turn ugly.

So far, so standard. Unfortunately the basic trope requires the protagonists to be nice, middle-class white people, and this doesn't describe Arthur, Terry and Jim. They're white and middle-class, but they're not nice at all. They're loud, bossy, entitled douchebags, and almost as soon as they are introduced the audience is looking forward to the time when they become piranha chow. And this is a problem. Frankly, you can't have heroes and heroines whom everybody wants to see dead within five minutes of meeting them.

The boys are both noisy bores, but Terry is a singularly repulsive creation. Dressed in ugly flared denim pantsuits of varying hues, she strides into each scene making imperious demands about what others are or aren't allowed to do, then collapses into a screaming helpless heap when the logical consequences of her demands unfold. Like many hippies, she has plenty of ideas about how things should be done but refuses to take any responsibility when those ideas fail.

The irony is that there's no sense that the audience is supposed to hate these people. We're supposed to be going, "Oh, no, will Terry survive?" as opposed to chanting, "Piranha! Piranha! Piranha!" every time she opens her big over-privileged yap-hole.

But having appalling protagonists is not the greatest of 'Piranha''s sins. Its greatest flaw is its misleading title.

When you call a movie 'Piranha', you make certain conceptual claims. The primary one being that the movie will contain piranhas, and not some ham-fisted point about Man being the most dangerous "piranha" of all. In fact unless you're fluent in Spanish and realise that 'Caribe' is Spanish for 'piranha', you probably won't even realise why the movie was named after a carnivorous fish at all.

Beyond all that, it isn't even a cogent metaphor. A single piranha will give you a nasty bite, true, but its mouth is tiny. The only way to get killed by a piranha is to the lie in shallow water for several hours being very careful not to move. Even Hollywood piranhas (far more rapacious beasts than their real-life brethren) are like zombies: the threat comes from overwhelming numbers, not from the prowess of an individual. So naming your bad guy "Piranha" is basically saying that he's a small, ineffectual creature who could only be a threat if you cloned him a few thousand times.

Still, he manages to kill almost all of the main cast, so in the end it's hard not to like him.


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