Between Reviews: Extra Dimension, but Where’s the Depth?

Posted on September 25, 2010



Two 3-D features – one that aims high and falls low, and another that’s better simply because it aims low and falls low.

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SEP 26, 2010NO SOONER THAN WE’VE ACCOMMODATED and adjusted the 3-D glasses over the bridge of the nose, Alice has a nightmare. She describes to her concerned father a procession of strange creatures – a blue caterpillar, a smiling cat. The father looks down indulgently and reassures his little girl, “I didn’t know a cat could smile.” Neither did we, until Lewis Carroll told us – rather, showed us, for the marvels in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland and, later, through the looking-glass were so vivid that we weren’t so much reading a book as already viewing its movie version. While this is true of almost every book – that we form pictures inside our heads, of characters, of places, of events – Carroll’s simple yet evocative descriptions became the instant equivalent of special effects. “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!” The movies were begging to be invented.

Tim Burton’s adaptation is titled Alice in Wonderland, but it places Alice in Underland – it reduces Carroll’s intrepid heroine to the unfortunate victim of a malapropism. Alice is at the cusp of womanhood, and she won’t be bound by corsets, metaphorical or literal. (Her grandmother is shocked, but naturally.) She won’t be married off either, to the milksop who announces his intentions in a gazebo, in front of a gathering of hundreds. He’s a lord, and everyone expects her to consent and consign herself to a life of idle luxury. Her destiny, however, is to slay Jabberwocky, end the Red Queen’s rule of tyranny, and restore the White Queen to power. Burton, in other words, attempts what Steven Spielberg did in Hook, imagining Peter Pan in a future far removed from JM Barrie’s scenarios but with the same set of characters. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.

The problem with Alice in Wonderland is the problem with most action-adventure spectacles these days – even the ones that do not require 3-D spectacles. The four words that spring to mind are “been there, done that.” So quickly does a pall of dreadful familiarity descend over the proceedings that you know the end barely minutes into the beginning. The quest of the callow hobbit, the unlikely alliance of the rebel force – these are the palimpsests of the modern-day blockbuster. Even the score, by Burton’s longtime collaborator Danny Elfman, sounds like he switched on the soundtrack CD of one of the numerous epics of late and quietly exited the recording room, preferring to lavish his eccentric gifts on a more worthwhile project. (And certainly, the mainstreaming of Tim Burton, once one of the great cinematic eccentrics, is a topic worthy of a thesis: What could have reduced the visionary of Edward Scissorhands to the bland purveyor of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Discuss!)

If there’s a saving grace, it’s Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, a worthy addition to the actor’s mad-character pantheon, alongside her immortal Bellatrix Lestrange. (Now there’s someone from a book who looked on screen just as she looked inside our heads.) Otherwise, it’s the same battle scenes, the same thundering escapes, the same scaly beasts – the tedium only occasionally leavened by stray spots of invention, like the big ears on an eavesdropper, or the red hearts stamped on Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s foreheads after being imprisoned by the Red Queen, or the perfect purr on the Cheshire Cat, which is exactly what feline contentment should sound like. Why do once-great filmmakers settle down to make all-audience spectacles that are indistinguishable from one another? The answer lies in the reality that movies, increasingly, are worldwide business ventures, and there’s less money to be made from a singularly eccentric vision than a broadly generic piece of escapism that will play equally well in Toronto, Tibet and Timbuktu.

It is in this clime that Piranha 3D, directed by Alexandre Aja, comes as a gift from the gods. It’s not high-minded entertainment that ends up as schlock. Its aims are admirably low – it just wants to be schlock. “Nice trombone,” says a porn-film actress, early on, to a girl clutching a wind instrument. The girl replies, “Nice boobs.” It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s exactly what an exploitation feature should sound like. It’s a relief to watch something that delivers on its promise – even if the promise is simply of cheap-and-dirty entertainment about killer fish gone wild around girls gone wild. It’s spring break and the bikinis are out, giving the predators a better look at the bronzed buffet ahead. The opening sequence sets the irreverent tone, with Richard Dreyfuss back on a boat, as if he never remembered what it was like to be at the receiving end of a water-dwelling killer’s undivided attention. This time around, he doesn’t escape those jaws.

Piranha 3D borrows from Jaws not only one of its performers but also its premise. Here too is a resort community that badly needs tourist dollars. Here too is a sheriff equivalent (a single mom, woo hoo!) who wants to close off the area but is cautioned against doing so. From the Alien movies comes the conceit of killer-jawed predators ripping through the bodies of hapless humans, and there’s even an embryo-strewn lair that hints at the unspeakable proliferation ahead. The genius of Piranha 3D, however, is to situate these thriller scenarios amidst a mash-up of porn and 3-D – an adult film is being shot in this locale, leading to such in-your-face imagery as the one of tequila being lapped up from the belly button of an actress with a wedge of lemon between her lips. Kudos to the Indian censors for getting what this picture is really about, and not lopping off those utterly gratuitous shots of buttocks and breasts. There would, otherwise, be no film left.

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Posted in: Between Reviews