In a case of rather unfortunate timing, the hurricane disaster pic Crawl was released last weekend over the same time period that tropical storm Barry made landfall in Louisiana. Strangely enough, the picture even stars the coincidentally-named Barry Pepper. Thankfully, though there was one reported death, the tempest was less violent than the most dire of predictions. Also, in a stroke of reasonably good luck, the film is above the norm for creature-feature fare, with solid scares, threatening alligators, and a capable lead in Kaya Scodelario.
When it comes to your standard water-bound scare-fest, we’re all familiar with how saturated the category is with sharks and other various rip-offs of Jaws. Last summer we were treated to The Meg in all of its absurd glory, and next month we have a 47 Meters Down sequel in the works. Killer alligators and crocodiles are nothing new either, though the reptiles certainly haven’t been mined to the same extent as sharks. In 1980 you had Alligator, in 1999 you had Lake Placid, and in 2007 you had both Primeval and Rogue, with Lake Placid being the most successful of these by far.
The interesting thing about these films is that they all prominently featured one giant, man-eating alligator or crocodile. 2019’s Crawl is the first original alligator film to feature ordinary-sized gators, and more than one of them as the focal point of the premise. The flick comes from French-born filmmaker Alexandre Aja, a director who has spent plenty of time in the genre of horror. He is best known for the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and easily what is most relevant here, 2010’s Piranha 3D, which fared atypically well with critics considering its category.
Crawl focuses on Haley (Kaya Scodelario – Pirates of the Caribbean, The Maze Runner), an aspiring professional swimmer from Florida. The film opens on an intense meet, where Haley furiously charges through the water remembering her childhood coaching from her father (Barry Pepper): “What are you?” “The apex predator!” We come to learn that Kaya’s parents are divorced, and though the father and daughter used to be as thick as thieves, the situation has strained their relationship. After her meet is over, Kaya hears there is a Category 5 hurricane coming her way.
Having not heard from her dad in a while, Kaya defies the policeman directing traffic for the evacuation and drives toward the storm to locate her father. Not finding him at his condo, Kaya checks the old family home that’s up for sale, and ultimately discovers him incapacitated down in the crawl space. Dave was weather-proofing the house when he was attacked by a massive alligator that came in through the drainpipe. As the storm worsens, the pair find themselves trapped in the tight space, with the water level rising fast, and multiple alligators out for blood.
In comparison to other weather-related disaster films, such as The Day After Tomorrow or San Andreas, which encompassed far-reaching scopes with wide casts of characters, or even other creature features of the same styling, Crawl takes on a rather bold conceptual approach in that it relegates almost the entirety of its conflict to a space so cramped and constrained that the characters barely even have the ability to stand up. The claustrophobia is effectively conveyed, and the notion of being trapped down there with these powerful gators is a terrifying thought.
The jaw-clamping reptiles are quite intimidating as well, with an alarming yet modest grouping of alligators always present to jeopardize our characters’ abilities to get out of the crawl space and escape the storm. Aja is fairly adept at tension and keeping viewers on their toes, with some rather effective jumps and surprises as gators burst onto the frame when least expected. The CGI is a mixed bag; the design of the reptiles certainly conveys their power as carnivores, yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say they don’t often look like they appear as if straight out of a video game.
While daring, the narrowness of the scenario remains acutely evident, as the film struggles to deliver the dramatic heft that is necessary to add meat to a premise that restricts itself so severely on plot, locations, and number of characters. The undertaking brings to mind another work of similar confinement, 127 Hours. Considering the daunting parameters of a single man with his arm pinned under a rock in a remote Utah canyon, Danny’s Boyle’s film still managed wring powerful drama and exciting suspense, even in a context subject to extreme limitation.
In comparison, Crawl comes up rather short in supplying the depth of character necessary to dynamically power such a finely-tailored storyline, making the pacing feel rather slow, even at a taut 87 minutes. And yet, while it’s rather meager in regard to the space it needs to fill, there definitely is some workable character content here as the film explores the stressed relationship between the once-close father and daughter. There are some respectably touching moments as the two express their feelings on the divorce, and their pain dealing with the family’s separation.
Kaya Scodelario shows up in fine form: she handles the emotional material quite well, and to those alligators, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Even in the face of crushing odds, Haley remains recklessly determined to save her father and survive the storm. She truly is the apex predator, and her foundation as a swimmer gives her character the requisite credibility to fearlessly confront alligators underwater. Overall, Crawl isn’t remarkable, but Aja proves himself capable of squeezing out enough thrills to provide this summer with a decently solid B-movie.