Review: ‘Crawl’ is the Relentless, Extraordinary Creature Feature of My Dreams
Within its very first moments, Crawl has won me over. We are immediately introduced to Haley (Kaya Scodelario) as a competitive college swimmer, and right then and there I know in my heart that this girl is going to have to out-swim an alligator. And ever so graciously, the film delivers.
Rarely does a film work so hard to fulfill expectations, and it starts by keeping the plot nice and simple. Haley returns to her childhood home amid a category 5 hurricane to rescue her father Dave (Barry Pepper), but the two are cornered inside the crawlspace underneath by hungry alligators. The clock is ticking as the storm worsens, because when the floodwaters pour in, their unwelcome houseguests will be able to swim and hunt freely. It’s truly the perfect storm of events, shaped by French horror director Alexandre Aja into the quintessential crowd pleaser.
Crawl gave me everything I wanted just by being genuine. When stories attempt to outmaneuver viewers by throwing away foreshadowing or going for shock value through a contrived plot device, it both belittles and disappoints the audience. This film is the antidote; the giddy satisfaction we crave, delivered wholeheartedly. It makes an ironclad case for choosing entertainment over bothersome realism. Producer Sam Raimi’s fingerprints are all over the film, mostly in how unrepentantly fun it all is. This is one meant for a big screen and a packed house with no room for cynicism. Disbelief must be fully suspended as fake movie CPR rears its head, multiple rescuers happen upon them, and a litany of other implausibilities find their way into the film. Our heroes fight through their injuries long enough for the next worse one to come along. No one would care to watch the boring, accurate alternative. I didn’t come for realism, I came for some good old fashioned Hollywood magic, baby.
The film deftly defines its characters and their relationship without wasting any of its precious 87 minutes. We quickly learn that Dave feels responsible for how his family has drifted apart, held together loosely by durable familial bonds. It’s clear Haley got her stubbornness from her father, having always been pushed to her limits competitively by the person who raised her. The film conveys the exact number of emotional asides needed to understand their dynamic without distracting from the danger at hand. And on the topic of distraction, an added bonus is the fact that Haley is completely non-sexualized. She’s never ogled by the camera or made into a passive object. She’s constantly in motion, deciding the next plan of action, and hell bent on weathering the storm. The two have authentic stakes that make their struggle meaningful to us.
Standard to the survival thriller, Crawl operates under Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Compared to films where the characters bumble from one bad decision to the next, its more heart-sinking seeing Haley and Dave do everything right, and still fail. Suspense builds when each and every shard of hope is shattered just as it comes within reach, their odds of escape plummeting as we root more desperately and personally for them.
And beyond Haley and Dave, there’s another essential character who won me over: the dog. Sugar is a very, very good girl, and even more than her human counterparts, my distress for her had me clinging to my Cinemark seat with white knuckles. Usually, the pet is the first appetizer in a creature feature, and its harrowing to watch Aja toy with that expectation. Post- film, my immediate google investigation was to discover how Sugar’s survival was determined. I found out I was not the only one curious why she is spared. Aja told Cinemablend,
“At the end of the day, I think what’s interesting is people are so obsessed with dogs. I love dogs, don’t get me wrong, but it’s so obsessive that to play with the expectation if the dog is going to live or not is more interesting than just [killing them.] Also, if I want to get my citizenship, I was told to not kill dogs anymore.”
As lusciously bonkers as the story is, Crawl obviously reveres its featured creature. The CGI gators look impeccable, and feel like they carry really weight, thrashing around with hefty force and cruising through the water without visual distortions. The wounds they inflict are grisly. They got the orange eye shine right, as well as their acute sensitivity to vibrations in the water. Though it isn’t the first time gators have been in the spotlight, it’s the first time their depiction was convincing. 1999’s Lake Placid is the first that springs to mind, as it leans into a comedically oversized beast when it’s not absorbed by human hijinks. The beauty of Crawl is that Aja recognizes the primordial force of the alligator as they exist in the world without any unnecessary filmic enhancements. They’re essentially dinosaurs that decided they don’t need to do any more evolving, they’re quite capable of killing whatever gets too close including looters and emergency responders. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? The result is an instinctual fear that permeates a prehistoric part of our brains to remind us we aren’t really top of the food chain.
It’s never stated outright, but the horror of this film has larger societal implications than man-eating reptiles. It’s not a stretch to hypothesize that this natural disaster narrative stems from climate crisis anxiety. No longer is the possibility of cinematic mass destruction limited to the realm of imagination, it’s imminent. Warmer oceans and atmosphere are intensifying rainfall, and increased sea levels now leave coastlines vulnerable to disastrous flooding, and one doesn’t have to look further than recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria to see the real world connections. As the threat worsens, it makes sense to speculate and play out nightmare scenarios through fictional media. Crawl’s Category 5 is Wendy, which is actually on the naming list by the World Meteorological Society for future storms. And when nature reclaims its territory, its apex predators will take back their throne.
Despite having so much going for it, Crawl inexplicably was barred from any press access. Many critics who saw the film upon release began to ask why no screenings were offered, especially because their praise would only have bolstered the box office. No answers have been given, so it’s safe to assume Paramount had no understanding of the film’s value or appeal. With a superhero sequel breaking the box office records at the moment of writing, they may be less inclined to put so much money an original, inventive titles such as this. As a show of lack of faith in their own product, it was also released with little to no marketing campaign to speak of, an absence noticeable especially in comparison to the expensive rollout of The Meg last summer, which was a bit of a letdown. The closest thing that it got to buzz marketing was 5 ft. gator ‘Chance the Snapper,’ who was found in a Chicago pond. But make no mistake, Crawl is every bit the disaster survival thriller you and I could ask for, easily taking a bite out of the competition and claiming the title of my favorite summer film this year.