Crawl is the most straight forward film of the year – a home invasion movie with alligators. There is no “your mileage may vary”, you’re either on board or you’re not. This puts the film in a clear position to have a well defined target audience, but it’s also fair to question whether the premise is appropriately executed in order to deliver the terror and absurdity this type of B movie schlock is known for.
The film opens on a swim meet – and within milliseconds of seeing the opening frame you already know the journey our main heroine, Haley (Kaya Scodelario), is headed on. Hmm, I wonder if Haley’s background as a swimmer will in any way come into play during this story about a massive flood wrecking her father’s home. The early parts of the film are filled with rather unremarkable, dialogue-heavy scenes that are used to position all the plot points in place. One such scene, as Haley Facetimes her sister, makes the shot-reverse-shot cliche seem like enveloping cinematography by contrast.
However, much of the bland photography is elevated once we get to the meat of the story: a category 5 hurricane that has wracked this Florida town. After failing to reach her father Dave (Barry Pepper), Haley rushes to his home to see if he’s ok, but stumbles upon the treacherous antagonists in addition to an incapacitated Dave. This section of the film is largely where things pick up as the digitally enhanced hurricane is as convincing as a gloomy Seattle day. The alligators, while clearly CGI, move and behave with a deliberate violence that instills the intended horror into the audience. It also helps that most of the house where the action takes place is practically built, helping to ground the action even if one component of it clearly is not there.
However, where director Alexandre Aja’s film stumbles is the characters. While Scodelario and Pepper are more than game for their roles (and the physical component of their performances must have been all kinds of hell), they’re a bit handcuffed by a few key dumb character decisions. There’s one early on involving a cell phone that leads to a big reveal, but the choices the character makes for us to get there are moronic, and frustrating considering there are better ways to get us to previously mentioned reveal.
Where the film is on the right track is the relationship between Haley and her father. Haley has her own personal baggage, mostly associated with her swim career, while her parents are currently going through a divorce. Unfortunately these tensions are nevsr taken advantage of to truly foster some familial scenes of anger, hostility, and ultimately reconciliation. Everything happens a bit too quickly, leaving me to wonder if the film could be edited to allow for more quiet moments without compromising the brisk runtime.
Ultimately, I feel like this creature feature has a great exterior, but is hollow when you look under the hood. The digital effects are above average, and our two leads are likable enough to make us want to go on the journey with them. But Crawl never comes together as worthwhile either as a story or a thrill-ride. What’s even more disappointing is the realization that this type of film is regularly broadcasted in straight to TV cable films, most notably the appropriately inane Sharknado series, yet Crawl seems to fall short of even those modest aims with the exception of some digital effects. This type of B movie fare either goes in the direction of self aware absurdity or skin crawling terror. Crawl never establishes either lane, and the finale plays more like an action film than a horror because we’re not successfully placed in Haley’s shoes as she’s trying to fight for her life. The tension is lacking, and if there’s no tension there’s no scares.
Genre films are a tricky subject to critique because the assumption among most audiences is that just because these films are “only meant to entertain”, that any criticism should be hand waved as if only the bare minimum should be expected. But these types of films, not prestige oscar bait, are the lifeblood of the cinema because there’s nothing more cinematically communal than a crowd pleasing thriller. So we should take these films seriously, even if their premise is bonkers. It’s under that microscope where Crawl means well and has the right ideas in mind, but falls short of it’s goals. What could be a truly terrifying romp is a just a mildly distracting bit of counter-programming. It’s not without merit, but we can do better.