Piranha Part Two: The Spawning is more James Cameron than it first appears.
But it’s still not a great movie.
It’s difficult to think of James Cameron as a B-movie director. Today he’s synonymous with blockbuster excess. Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar, all were huge, cinematic tentpole films. But once upon a time he was a young scrappy director trying to make his first big break. And that break was Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (which I’ll just call Piranha II).
Piranha II is the sequel to Piranha I, which itself is a parody of Jaws and other, similar B-movies that cropped up after the success of Spielberg’s monster epic. But while the first Piranha was a parody, Piranha II is attempting to be a mostly serious horror film. Mutant piranhas have now grown wings, and attack the people of a small Caribbean island. There to stop him are Anne, a diving instructor and ex-marine biologist, Steve, a beach cop, and Tyler, a tourist who’s secretly a military biochemist. Over time we discover that the flying, man-eating fish are actually a superweapon developed by the military, and our heroes have to stop them before they devour everything in their path.
I’d seen Piranha, but never Piranha II. I knew that it was James Cameron’s directorial debut (at least the shooting. Apparently “creative differences” meant that he wasn’t allowed to edit or even watch playback of his footage), so figured I’d give it a shot.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Piranha II is not a good movie. It isn’t even a good B-movie. It’s slow and clunky and has a dumb premise, it takes itself too seriously and it’s a poor cousin to a tonne of other already poor-cousin films released around the same time.
And yet, we can still see the beginnings of Cameron’s flourishes. It’s a water movie, which he would later revisit for The Abyss and of course Titanic. It’s a monster movie, like Aliens, Terminator, and to a degree The Abyss. It’s got Lance Hendriksen in it, like Aliens and Terminator.
There’s a scene where a piranha bursts out of a corpse’s chest and attacks a nurse. It‘s clearly inspired by the famous scene from Alien, and Cameron would later use some of the techniques here in Aliens. Even the head and teeth looks the same.
The idea of the entire final action scene taking place underwater is actually kind of neat. All of the communication between our two heroes is through gestures, with things playing out muffled and with no dialogue. The pair are planting a bomb, while Lance Hendriksen as Steve stays up top in the boat, ready to help with a quick getaway. They’re swimming through a sunken ship and once the bomb is set they have to escape before it explodes, which is nice and claustrophobic. Again, it’s rather like Aliens in that regard, with a countdown while our heroes escape the attacking monsters.
I do wonder what might have happened with this movie if Cameron was given more control. The actual look and practical effects of the piranhas themselves are… well, not great, but better than they needed to be. And it’s shot effectively enough.
Look, it was never going to be a masterpiece. But think about this: if you took away the great casting and production design of The Terminator, that film could have well ended up as a forgotten B-movie, too. Killer cyborgs travelling through time, how is that any different from the hundred other lame duck high concept low budget sci fi released in the seventies and eighties? The answer, really, is James Cameron.