They Were Here First
Look, the easy shorthand for Crawl is ‘The Shallows, but with alligators instead of a Great White,’ but that’s doing it something of a disservice — there are other key differences. For one thing, it’s set in Florida during a savage hurricane rather than on a remote Mexican beach. For another, it stars Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner (2014), rather than Blake Lively. And instead of a wounded seagull, we have Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan (1998), as a wounded handyman. That has to count for something, right?
We also get Alexandre Aja, The Hills Have Eyes (2006), on directing duties and, much like 2016’s The Shallows director Jaume Collet-Serra, the French filmmaker knows exactly how to pitch this sort of thing, acknowledging the drive-in movie roots of his fun, ferocious creature feature, but still employing every trick in the book to rachet up the tension. And that’s the essential appeal of this sort of thing: knowing it’s all contrived pulp and going along for the ride anyway. This is a B movie made with A-lister skill. Your intellect may think it’s above all this nonsense, but your endocrine system will still dance to the beat Aja is playing. Really, the sly digging at the parallels between Collet-Serra’s shark flick and Aja’s ‘gator-jam are all in good fun — they both know what they are and make no bones about it. Hell, they’d make a nigh-perfect double feature.
The plot is suitably simple: as a Category 5 hurricane thunders toward them, would-be champion swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) braves the worsening weather to check on her estranged dad, Dave (Barry Pepper), who is fixing up the house he used to share with her mother (divorce and familial strife comprise the thin but serviceable back-story). She finds him injured in the basement, hiding out from a large and hungry ‘gator, and we proceed from there: Haley’s dodging hungry reptiles and contending with worsening weather, rising water, and various resource management issues while wounded pops kibitzes from the sidelines and reminds her that she’s a fighter, dammit! (As an aside, the sheer amount of bodily damage that Pepper’s character stoically endures is absolutely insane).
A few other characters show up to feed the beasts (who would be a cop in Florida, I ask you?) but this is largely a two-hander — three, if you count the family dog who is also along for the ride. Exorcising family trauma through the medium of a siege is a familiar theme in genre circles — it seems that in these ‘bottle episode’ movies, someone’s always got a lot to get off their chest before the seemingly inevitable doom outside their flimsy sanctuary chews through the door. In this case, Dave is feeling guilty over pushing Haley too hard in her swimming career, which seems a little petty given the circumstances. Compare Lewis Teague’s Cujo (1983), based on Stephen King’s novel, where Dee Wallace’s adulterous housewife is trapped in her car, along with her young son, by the titular rabid Saint Bernard and must wonder if God is punishing her — now that’s pathos. Come to think of it, Teague also directed the 1980 monster movie Alligator, which also has obvious points of comparison with the film at hand.
Aja gets a lot of mileage out of his setting. The basement crawlspace where we spend most of our time is a dark and dripping labyrinth, all creaking pipes and wet brickwork, and — as Jaws (1975) taught us — it’s often what we don’t see that creeps us out more than the actual onscreen creatures. You spend a lot of time wondering why Aja has left so much space at the edge of the frame in his compositions, and why we have such a clear view of this or that particular patch of empty water — surely at any moment something scaled and toothy is going to burst forth.
When they do burst forth, it’s very satisfying. The ‘gators in Crawl don’t act ridiculously contrary to their nature in the way the shark in The Shallows (or any shark movie) does, although any herpetologists reading are invited to school me if I’m off the mark here — I spend way more time around sharks than crocodilians. Interestingly, they’re not malevolent — they’re just hungry, and here, and that’s simply bad luck for all concerned. The threat they represent feels grounded, even as the film spirals up into a delirious climax of wind and rain and teeth and tails — ‘gators, after all, will opportunistically prey on humans, while sharks, in general, will not.
But this is not an Attenborough joint, folks — this is a monster flick, and it knows what it’s about. We’re here for big beasties gnawing on hapless humans, a canny hero using her wits and inborn abilities to escape gruesome death, and MVP Barry goddamn Pepper, who here looks like a Lynyrd Skynyrd song come to life, and on more than one occasion shows more concern for the life of his dog than his only daughter — there’s a point where hurling the poor mutt into the water as chum is the most obvious course of action to save a human life, and the possibility never even enters the characters’ minds. Beautiful.
Crawl is not going to change any lives, but there is something to be said for a knowing and expertly crafted genre exercise. There’s so much fun to be had here, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you turned your nose up at it. Like, say, Anaconda (1997), or Deep Rising (1998), or the genuinely great The Relic (1997) (and wow, that was a good run we had there), it has such an affection for the genre and its tropes, and such a commitment to wringing the maximum amount of thrills and chills out of its premise, that it practically dares you not to enjoy yourself. Why be a holdout? I generally find obvious ‘call to action’ closers obnoxious, but for real: get a big gang together, pre-load with a few adult beverages, and go see this one in a cinema with a good sound system. You. Will. Have. A. Time.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson