One of the Most Entertaining Creature Features Does a Lot With a Silly Premise
Alexandre Aja's alligator attack movie rises above its B-movie origins with genuine suspense and compelling characters.
It’s easy to imagine a much cheesier version of director Alexandre Aja’s Crawl, which would be titled something like Gatorcane, would be full of goofy one-liners, and would get lost among the dozens of other low-budget creature features that clutter up streaming services and VOD platforms every year. Aja takes the potentially ridiculous premise from Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s screenplay and treats it with absolute seriousness, never winking at the audience or mocking his characters.
There’s emotional depth to the relationship between college student Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave Keller (Barry Pepper), who get stuck in a crawlspace of their former family home in a Florida town in the midst of a severe hurricane — a hurricane that happens to bring a monstrous alligator into the crawlspace. But Aja finds the perfect balance between gatorsploitation and genuinely affecting storytelling, efficiently establishing the central character dynamic while propelling Haley toward her inevitable showdown with the deadly reptiles.
After an almost ethereal opening scene set during Haley’s college swim-team practice — of course her school’s mascot is the gator — Haley gets a video call from her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark), who’s concerned that she hasn’t been able to reach their father on the phone. Haley assures Beth that she can drive from school to their hometown, two hours away, making sure that Dave is safe before the hurricane hits.
That’s an obviously bad idea, and Haley is nearly deterred by an old friend who’s now a police officer, manning a roadblock along her route. But she bypasses the barriers and presses on, arriving in a deserted town to find her father’s apartment empty aside from his dog. Instead, Dave is at the former family home, which was put up for sale when he and Haley’s mom got divorced. As Haley searches the house, Aja focuses on clearly and smoothly laying out the parameters and obstacles. By the time Haley finds Dave injured and unconscious in the crawlspace, the audience has a sense of what challenges she’ll face getting to safety.
The biggest challenge is the huge alligator that crashes down the stairs just as Haley is about to drag Dave back into the house, and that alligator is soon joined by more, a whole swarm of ravenous beasts taking advantage of the rising waters to hunt for easy prey. Crawl has a lot in common with shark movies, from the Jaws-influenced alligator POV shots to the alligators roaming the submerged aisles of a convenience store across the street, like the supermarket sharks in 2012 B-movie Bait. Yet it never feels like a rip-off, instead drawing on genre conventions to tell its own particular story.
Aja made a much sillier animal-attack movie with 2010’s Piranha 3D, but Crawl is lean and often brutal, with gruesome moments of violence that emphasize just how deadly the alligator threat can be. When Haley spots a trio of opportunistic robbers at that nearby convenience store committing a hurricane heist, Aja ruthlessly dispatches them, and Haley and Dave’s hopes of rescue are repeatedly, often cruelly dashed. Crawl can feel almost sadistic at times, but it isn’t mean-spirited, and Aja gives Haley and Dave time to repair their fractured family bond in a way that comes off as sincere.
It helps that Scodelario and Pepper take the material just as seriously as Aja does, and Scodelario gives one of her best performances as the determined, occasionally foolhardy Haley. She makes use of all the tools at her disposal, from jamming a screwdriver into an alligator’s eye to biting down on her flashlight as she tourniquets her leg wound. If she makes mistakes, it’s because she’s not willing to give up on the man who never gave up on her as he coached her to a series of swim championships throughout her childhood.
Scodelario and Pepper can deliver those authentic performances because Aja places them within a convincingly real space, setting most of the movie in and around the rapidly flooding house. The CGI alligators are likewise convincing, and there aren’t any moments of superhuman (or supergator) feats that tip the movie into the realm of fantasy.
It’s far too easy to throw together a deadly animal, a natural disaster, and a memorably dumb title, assuming that’s all that’s needed to draw in viewers. Crawl is the rare movie in this genre that lives up to its high-concept pitch, generating consistent suspense by putting characters worth caring about in life-or-death situations that feel like they have real consequences.