Pitting a father and daughter against snapping alligators during the middle of a hurricane, this creature feature is unnervingly effective.
July 11, 2019
Part creature feature and part disaster movie, Crawl is a gleeful ripper of a thriller. Not only unleashing a ferocious hurricane upon its father-daughter duo, but a congregation of snapping alligators as well, its premise is simple — what the film lacks in narrative surprises, however, it makes up for in suspense and tension. That's the holy grail of fear-inducing flicks. Regardless of the concept, if a movie can make the audience feel as if they're in the same space as the characters they're watching, enduring every bump and jump, and sharing their life-or-death terror, then it has done its job. By playing it straight, serious and scary, Crawl manages to exceed its Sharknado rip-off status to craft a highly effective battle between humans, animals and the elements.
The film introduces aspiring swimming star Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) on a wet and windy day, although she initially misses the wild weather warnings while she's doing laps at training. A panicked call from her sister (Moryfydd Clark) doesn't rattle the no-nonsense young woman, and nor does the news that her divorced father Dave (Barry Pepper) isn't answering his phone. Still, thanks to a few unresolved daddy-daughter issues nagging at her conscience, Haley is quickly driving down the blustery highway, flagrantly ignoring police instructions and heading to their old family home. It's no spoiler to say that she discovers more than she bargained for down in their basement, with Haley soon trying to save the injured Dave, stay alive herself, fend off ravenous gators and stay ahead of rising flood waters.
In telling this tale, writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (The Ward) haven't met a cliche they didn't love, an emotional beat they didn't want to hit, or a convenient twist of the narrative screws that they didn't want to turn. It can't be overstated just how much of Crawl, in a story sense, plays out exactly as expected. Plot developments and character decisions all stick to the usual formula, as does animal behaviour and storm surges (if you're a screenwriter, it's possible to control the very forces that your protagonists can't). But it's worth thanking the cinema gods that Alexandre Aja is sitting in the director's chair — and that he knows a thing or two about creature features and horror movies. While the French filmmaker has both hits and misses to his name (including Haute Tension, remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, and the devilish Daniel Radcliffe flick Horns), here he masters the art of conveying an alligator's menace.
Of course, it could be argued that much of Crawl's work is easy. Along with sharks, gators already rank among the most frightening beasts on the planet. Courtesy of their teeth, speed, size and power, just thinking about them gives plenty of people the shivers — so, on paper, all that an unsettling film need do is place the scaly critters front and centre. And yet, as too many Jaws wannabes have shown since Steven Spielberg's massive hit created the concept of the blockbuster as we know it, it's not enough just to throw a bunch of attacking animals at some clueless folks. As more comic takes have demonstrated in Sharknado, Snakes on a Plane and the Birdemic movies, it's not enough to write off the whole scenario as simple silliness either. There's an existential basis to the genre's underlying idea, unpacking how humanity truly copes when it's made to face nature. As a species, much of our sense of collective worth stems from our ability to shape and control our world, and yet we can't stop weather systems from morphing into destructive hurricanes, or hungry reptiles from doing what they're designed to do.
Mainly lurking in the Kellers' dank, dark, rat-infested crawlspace, Crawl leans into the primal side of pitting people against the environment. Aja takes every chance to emphasise the scampering threats eager to gobble up Haley and Dave. With assistance from his regular cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, he ramps up the unease, deploying tried and tested filmmaking techniques such as low shots, quick cuts, point-of-view perspectives, dim lighting, and ample movement and shadow. A couple of gory kill sequences add to the mood, as does the movie's approach to its swirling winds and rushing water. Indeed, amid the rampant CGI, there's a sense of awe for the havoc that alligators and hurricanes can each wreak, which only heightens the stressful atmosphere.
Unsurprisingly, fear and tension radiates through the film as a result — and through its key duo, too. Although Scodelario and Pepper are given about as much room for character development as their cold-blooded foes, they still bring a naturalistic air to their performances, portraying anxious everyday folks just fighting to survive by doing whatever it takes. No matter what's thrown at us, or how, or where, that's what making humanity grapple with our surroundings boils down to, after all. In fact, given the state of the planet, Crawl's central theme not only proves frightening and fuels an effective thriller, but also feels unnervingly prescient.