Every movie with a man vs. beast (especially an aquatic beast) premise is released under the shadow of a famous killer shark. No matter how little the new releases’ plot, beast, or characters objectively have in common with Jaws, comparisons to Spielberg’s stalwart classic always pop up in nearly every review. While some of these films beg for the comparison, others, like Alexandre Aja’s Crawl, are made in an original voice and demand to be taken on their own merits.
Now, this is not to say that Crawl doesn’t nod to the 1975 release—it does, but these nods don’t stick out like yellow barrels in a sea of blue. Jaws and Spielberg left such a permanent imprint on movies that it’s impossible not to borrow some of the most effective choices when telling your own story. Aja uses these tried and true filmmaking techniques to tell his tale, but that’s where the Jaws comparisons stop.
The basic premise is that, while attempting to rescue her dad (Barry Pepper) during a hurricane, a college student named Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is trapped in the crawl space of a flooding, alligator-infested house. That’s it. And while not overly original, Crawl is a breath of fresh air—not because of what it does, but because what it doesn’t do. With a runtime of 87 minutes and this super simple premise, Crawl, to everyone’s benefit, is a lean movie. Everything that’s introduced throughout the story has a reason to be there. Haley is a competitive swimmer, and her family is falling apart. There’s a sister states away, a mother who is off with a new romance, and Haley and her dad’s once-strong relationship has now been strained by the divorce. All of this back story has a place within the narrative of the movie.
In fact, it wasn’t the gator attacks, but rather the character development that took me by surprise. Unlike other movies, where the shoehorned relationships fall flat or induce eye-rolling so intense you vomit, Crawl’s relationships are natural and necessary. Aja gives us a reason to care about Haley and her dad, and Scodelario and Pepper make it believable. Because the movie doesn’t move at breakneck speed, there’s time to breathe and build this relationship.
There are so few characters in Crawl that most of the runtime is spent on two people…plus half a dozen alligators. After all, this wouldn’t be a horror movie without a violent threat, and what’s scarier about Florida than its alligators and hurricanes? I mean, besides Floridians.
Going into Crawl, I was very worried about these alligators—not because I’m afraid of them, but because, by the looks of them, no one would be. Based on the trailer, the whole movie looked as if it was going to be CGI on top of CGI. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. By the time the storm hits and we get our first glimpse of the alligators, any worry of mine had been put to rest. Yeah, some of it was hard to look at, but I was far too invested in the characters and tension to notice.
While the alligators are on full display for the most part, but there are wonderfully crafted moments, too, when we see a ripple in the rising water or a crash in the distance that never lets the audience forget the gators are nearby.
Crawl is a surprisingly subtle movie, which is remarkable coming from producer Sam Raimi, whose hand at nuance I’ve questioned. Like so many other films that see nature as their antagonist, it could’ve been far too easy to give into temptation and go over the top with every element—genetically engineered alligators, or making them a supposedly extinct species of gargantuans with overdeveloped intelligence and a thirst for revenge.
Thankfully, Crawl’s gators—even when shown in their full glory—aren’t oversized monsters, but rather the alligators that you could find roaming the swamps of Florida right now. They crawled into a house during a category five hurricane, and gator’s gonna do what a gator’s gonna do: eat. There’s no message hidden in that. The audience isn’t subjected to a lesson about the moral quandaries of science or the dangers of human-created global warming. There’s a time and a place for that type of story, but Crawl isn’t interested. Instead, Crawl’s interest is in keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. The flood waters are rising, the alligators are hungry, and there’s only one escape.
Crawl is a perfect change of pace from the slow-burn arthouse movies and explosive blockbusters we’ve seen hit theaters recently. It’s quiet, yet thrilling; action packed, yet small. Just like a gator, Crawl sinks its teeth in and doesn’t let go.