No sensible person goes to see a movie about killer alligators and then complains that it was silly and over the top. So it’s puzzling that Paramount would refuse to hold critics’ screenings for Alexandre Aja’s Crawl, a film that, despite some ludicrous action scenes and risible dialogue, might well have been helped more than harmed, on the whole, by reviews. After all, not every Snakes on a Flesh-Eating Sharknado delivers on its schlocky promises, and savvy consumers like to be told they won’t get burned this time. Consider this a measured endorsement for the kind of action-packed B picture where Serbia stands in for coastal Florida, and nobody notices, and they wouldn’t care if they did.
It’s hurricane season in Gainesville, where high-achieving swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) emerges from a practice race to troubling news: Her far-off sister has been unable to reach their father (Barry Pepper’s Dave), who lives in the path of a major storm and doesn’t seem to have heeded evacuation orders. Haley promises to go check on him, skirting road blocks and good sense, only to find his truck parked outside their childhood home but nobody inside. Turns out he’s in the icky crawlspace beneath the house, where he was incapacitated during a plumbing repair. The giant gator that wounded him is still down there, and soon, father and daughter are both trapped below the floorboards, hiding in the few spots the monster can’t reach. Torrential rain is slowly flooding the neighborhood, and any viewer who suspects a single alligator isn’t enough for this kind of film will soon be proved right in a very big way.
About those scaly beasts, whose numbers rapidly multiply, and who soon control nearly every bit of real estate our heroes might hope to slither to: They’re rendered with nearly enough verisimilitude to be extras in the new Lion King, though they lack something in the personality department, and could probably benefit from a nasty song-and-dance number. (Albeit one not penned by Elton John and Tim Rice.)
Their comings and goings are rather, shall we say, plot-convenient. Which is to say there’s no need to catch the names of about-to-die supporting characters, but father and daughter manage to survive for a surprisingly long time within several yards of the meanies without getting chomped. Well, strike that: Maybe they do get chomped. Maybe a lot, and sometimes thrashed violently around mid-chomping. Let’s say instead they do a surprisingly good job of not dying, and are very good sports about applying their own tourniquets and setting their own broken bones.
Accepting the film’s own standard of plausibility, thrillseekers should appreciate the brisk pace with which scares, setbacks and possible escapes are delivered. The script by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen relies heavily not just on Haley’s aquatic skills but on her history with Dave, an aggressive dad-coach who taught his little girl to think of herself as an “apex predator.” More mobile than her father, she’s responsible for trying out possible escape routes from this claustrophobic, watery prison; Scodelario shows believable grit, and is even able to project fierceness and terror while filmed underwater, her hair floating around her as she tries not to be noticed by the prehistoric reptiles swimming alongside her. (Underwater and elsewhere, the pic takes great liberties with light sources. You were expecting maybe natural-light realism?)
The critter-vs-human staging gets increasingly hard to buy, and eventually Dave’s “You got this — you’re faster than they are!” pep talks start to sound like an audition for World’s Worst Dad. Rest assured that he does not go entirely unpunished for leading his daughter into this disaster zone. Then again, things don’t end terribly, assuming that being alive in Florida doesn’t make a viewer’s list of fates worse than death.
Production companies: Raimi Productions, Fire Axe
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenwriters: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Producers: Alexandre Aja, Craig Flores, Sam Raimi
Executive producers: Justin Bursch, Gregory Levasseur, Lauren Selig
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Alan Gilmore
Costume designer: Momirka Bailovic
Editor: Elliot Greenberg
Composers: Max Aruj, Steffen Thum
Casting director: Alan Gilmore
Rated R, 87 minutes