Here be gators. The trailer for Crawl makes that blatantly obvious, promising a creature feature about a girl trapped inside a house with a murderous alligator. Luckily, the pulp thriller delivers on all the delightfully grandiose alligator action promised, while conveying a suspenseful survival story full of tense moments and sharp surprises.[Ed. note: This article contains mild spoilers for Crawl.]
There isn’t just one gator; there is an army of gators. There are so many gators. They are big chonky boys, bigger than any gator I’ve actually seen in the wild (and I would know, having grown up in South Florida). Sure, director Alexandre Aja was inspired by the biggest, baddest gators out there, but as he says, the alligators in the film, while rooted in reality, were “hyper-real.” These alligators are exaggerated caricatures of alligators rather than alligators themselves — which makes them awesome.
In Crawl, Haley (Kaya Scodelario) heeds news of a Category 5 hurricane and returns to her hometown of Coral Lake, Florida, when she can’t immediately contact her father (Barry Pepper). After finding his apartment missing, she journeys through the storm to her old family home and descends into the crawl space — finding bloody pipes and her trapped and wounded father, cowering from a giant alligator blocking the exit. As long as Haley and her dad stay behind the pipes, they’re safe, but the rising water level and worsening weather means they can’t stay hiding for long.
The movie hits high points when indulging in the outlandish: Haley sticks her arm down an alligator’s mouth and fires off a shotgun, for instance, right after finding a nest of newly hatched gator babies in her family home’s crawl space; dramatic red lighting highlights Sugar the Very Good Dog as she anxiously doggy-paddles in the infested waters. Part of the reason the outlandishness ends up happening is because every character completely enables it.
Everyone — human or animal — in this movie makes incredibly stupid decisions, and that’s the beauty of Crawl. Everything that could go wrong goes wrong, thanks in no part to everyone acting like a total moron. Haley finds her dad in the crawl space of the old family home, which he just decided to visit because what if something happened to it during the Category 5 hurricane? A gaggle of teenagers raids a convenience store in the middle of the storm. When Haley and her father finally do get out of the crawl space, they decide to cross the alligator-infested waters instead of finding a stable high place in their house — very brave! The characters are all incredibly, chaotically, confidently stupid, but it is all very true to Florida, the state that regularly makes national headlines due to truly inane criminals confidently committing equally ridiculous crimes.
But beyond dumbass Florida people doing Florida things, there is a tightly wound, suspenseful survival story here. At its core, Crawl is a disaster movie, and some of the most tense moments come not from the swarming gators, but from the rising waters, failed communications, and hasty wound treatments. That’s not to say that the hyperbolic gators don’t have suspenseful moments. While lots of the appeal of the gators comes from their bloody massacring, the fact that you can’t see them because of the murky water makes for some thrilling jump scares. I say this as someone who normally hates jump scares, but the ones in Crawl were teased along just so, never felt gratuitous, and always landed.
The film’s weaknesses come primarily from the overly sentimental dialogue between Haley and her father. Lines like “we’re each other’s homes” wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark Christmas movie, but seem a little hammy in a disaster-horror movie. Moments in Crawl try to explore their history, like how Haley thinks her childhood swimming career jeopardized her parents marriage and thus ruined the family, but we’re not here for the teary backstory. Give us the alligators! Give us the frenzied chase scenes in the confined crawl space!
The pivot of a young woman trying to save her father — instead of the other way around, as often seen in disaster flicks (hello, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) — is also refreshing, but the dreary history between the father and daughter could be spared. The movie’s intro slogs along to establish the relationship, but thankfully once Haley descends into the crawl space, it’s all gator action, all the time.
The alligators, the tight crawl space — a controversial topic amongst Floridians who thought it was a basement — and the hurricane all work separately, but together they create some claustrophobic, truly terrifying moments, taking Crawl from a simple creature feature to a tense disaster film that mashes the outlandish and suspenseful into chompingly good fun.
Crawl is out now in theaters.