The original Piranha movie was really about the politics of military science

Illustration for article titled The original Piranha movie was really about the politics of military science

With the 3D remake of 1978 cult flick Piranha coming out today, it's time to look back at the Roger Corman-produced original. Written by acclaimed indie director John Sayles, Piranha is a weird mix of toothy fish and lefty politics.

In case you can't guess what this movie is about, after having watched every Syfy Original Movie aired for the past two years, here's the lowdown: On a river near the Texas seaside, some teens disappear. Turns out they were eaten by weaponized piranhas, who have managed to escape their cages and get into the river. Maggie, a PI hired to find the teens, joins forces with curmudgeonly local Paul to stop the fish from eating kids at camp and tourists at a resort. But the military is trying to cover everything up, thereby putting even more people in danger! There are lots of scenes of shadowy fish going "nom nom nom" on people's hands, toes, crotches, and faces.

What's really interesting is that this was written by Sayles, who is hardly thought of as a schlockmeister. Known for small, progressive movies like Return of the Secaucus 7, Brother From Another Planet, and Lone Star, Sayles has always funded his indies by writing scripts for genre mainstays - including Piranha, The Howling, and Jurassic Park IV. Piranha was his first screenplay, and he used the cash he got from Corman to fund Return of the Secaucus 7 shortly afterwards.


So you might think Piranha is a cheesy horror flick, devoted entirely to scenes like this one [NSFW]:

But actually you can see many Sayles touches in Piranha. First of all, it features weirdo indie writer/director Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) as a crazed camp counselor who is obsessed with stopping the kids from going for unauthorized "midnight swims."

And for another thing, you get speeches like this, delivered by the guy who weaponized the piranhas for the US military:

Just in case you didn't get the MESSAGE that military + science = dangerously immoral, we get another look at the evil of military science:

Sayles even put in a characteristic cameo, as a soldier who is supposed to be preventing our heroes from getting away and blowing the whistle on the military's dangerous fish experiments. Sayles appears in a number of his own films as a bumbling authority figure.

This scene demonstrates not just Sayles' silliness, but another characteristic touch from his indie films. Maggie is the most competent character throughout the movie, and when Paul does the sexist thing and asks her to "hit on" a guy to help him escape, her first reaction isn't to do what he says, but to question the very idea. "What if he's gay?" she asks.


A few years after writing Piranha, John Sayles gained a lot of critical attention (and a MacArthur genius grant) for writing and directing a movie called Lianna, about a woman who figures out she's a lesbian after marrying a man.

I'll be honest with you: Most of Piranha is exactly what you'd expect from a low-budget flick about fish with giant teeth. But one of the reasons the Piranha franchise has become such an enduring cult staple is because the original movie wasn't just about bloody nom nom. It's about what happens when the goal of science is killing rather than progress.


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I've been having a hard time articulating to my husband why I kind of want to see the new one. Think I can use the military science argument?