An estranged father and daughter pick the absolute worst place and time to get together and try to iron out their problems. The time is in the middle of a category five hurricane that is slamming into the coast of South Florida. The place is the dank and disgusting crawl space underneath their now abandoned ancestral home, a crawl space that is quickly filling up with flood water and ferocious, and apparently famished, alligators.
What could go wrong?
For monster movie fans, the answer is almost nothing. Directed by Alexandre Aja (High Tension), Crawl is a cinematic thrill ride that doesn’t waste much time trying to develop a story that will make you care about the characters on the big screen. In fact, it isn’t very long after the opening credits end before the first giant gator shows up (in a soon-to-be-classic jump scare moment) and starts trying to chomp on anything that moves.
And, with the exception of an extremely clumsy scene of family exposition that feels like it was added on in post-production, Aja keeps the tension of Crawl cranked up to 11, giving the audience little time to breathe, let alone think too much about the plausibility of what they are watching.
As with any monster movie, the first bar that has to be cleared is how good the monsters look up on the big screen. And while realism is always welcome, particularly in an animals-gone-wild film like Crawl, it is not the only measure to be used. After all, when Godzilla was the King of the Monsters back in 1956 he was just a guy (Haruo Nakajima) in a rubber suit. So scientists, or The Gator Boys from Animal Planet, may find fault in the CGI gators Aja and his crew have come up, but the rest of us will be too scared to stop and look for faults as the giant beasts swim by.
The second challenge is whether or not the actors, who were probably acting to an FX marker to show them where the beasts would be added later, can sell the terror. And they do. As the dad, Barry Pepper (Battlefield Earth) has the unenviable task of starting the movie already injured by one of the gators; he has some gnarly, deep, claw marks on his shoulder and his shin is broken to the point that the bone is poking out of the skin. So he starts the movie acting like he is in a lot of pain and spends 99 percent of the rest of it trying to take his pain performance to the next level as his character gets more and more chewed up by the gators.
Playing the part of the daughter, Haley, who has been away at college on a swimming scholarship, Kaya Scodelario at least gets a chance to start the movie uninjured; angry at the world, and particularly at her father, but at least she spends the first 20 minutes of the movie with her body intact. Scodelario is more than just an angry young woman, though. In Crawl, she is a heroic angry young woman and it’s both exciting and empowering to watch her go toe-to-toe with the alligators, particularly in the scene where one of them has her seemingly trapped in a small bathroom’s even smaller shower stall. (It’s a cool teaser scene in the trailer and a cheer-worthy payoff in the finished film.)
There are other people in the movie, but it’s pretty clear from the second they show up that they are there only to provide meat for the gators to snack on while they wait for Haley and her dad to either make a mistake or pass out from loss of blood and body parts. The kills are memorable… maybe… but the performers are not.
As good as Pepper and Scodelario are when the action is taking place, they both fall flat in a silly scene where Haley and her dad take time out from trying to keep from eaten to talk about their feelings. It can be argued, one guesses, that such a scene is “necessary” to flesh out the characters and their relationship but it really slams on the breaks in terms of the tension Aja has created up to that point and it takes a long time, cinematically speaking, for him to crank it up again. It could be the writing it could be the acting or it could be the timing but that particular scene could easily be cut out of the movie (or fast forwarded through when it comes out on Blu-ray) and nothing would be lost beyond the frustration of sitting through it.
And even though it takes a while for Crawl to regain its footing after the forced family moment, the wait is worth it. The final dad/daughter vs. giant alligator scenes are frantic and fun with just the right amount of gore (human and reptilian) to make you flinch. You know in your mind that father and daughter will survive, but Aja keeps you guessing just how much of them will physically be left once they do.
Crawl isn’t the kind of film that will get a sequel (although it’s an idea that will probably be tossed around if the opening weekend box office numbers are big enough), but it is the kind of high energy genre film that will be just as much fun for fans to watch a couple of times before summer is one.
- John Black, Crawl