'Crawl' Is a Climate Change Disaster Movie Hiding Inside a Tense Gator Thriller
There's a reason we'll always have movies about toothy, beady-eyed, bloodthirsty creatures from the deep that erupt out of the briny waves to menace bellowing men and shrieking women. It's a tradition born from movies like Orca, Jaws, Lake Placid, and even as far back as Herman Melville's Moby Dick: there is a great beast somewhere down there, and man must prove his supremacy over nature or else get eaten alive. "I think it's always the mystery of what you don't see under the surface. There's something about the world living underneath that's more scary than what we know," says Alexandre Aja, director of Piranha 3D and this summer's newest white knuckle horror-thriller Crawl -- a delightfully low-budget home invasion thriller that delivers every roaring maw and crunchy bone its promotional material promises.
Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is a young competitive swimmer native to the Sunshine State who's sick of always coming in second-best. After swim team practice one morning, with a hurricane about to make landfall, she gets a call from her sister, unable to reach their father. Haley, against her sister's protests, decides to go back to their childhood home to check on her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) and finds him unconscious and bleeding in the house's swiftly flooding crawlspace, menaced by an enormous alligator.
It's your classic monster-in-the-house thriller: with the floodwaters rising, Haley has to figure out how to get herself and her father out of their house and past the increasing number of gators -- it turns out there's not one, but two stalking the crawlspace -- without drowning or getting eaten alive.
From the moment the first gator arrives onscreen, a slimy, spiky CGI behemoth roaring and dragging its massive body through the mud, the movie is thrilling until the end, our human heroes trying every trick they can think of to outsmart the scaly beasts. The movie is full of tense, deliberately placed jump scares: Aja himself -- who attended Crawl's press day in a Lacoste button-down, naturally -- said it's more like last year's lauded sci-fi horror A Quiet Place than Anaconda. Haley and Dave end up having to swim through their house once they escape the basement, the two of them paddling through huge, to-scale sets that the crew built to flood in a huge shipyard. There's a memorable scene involving Scodelario leaping around a half-submerged bathroom to trap a gator behind the shower door.
A movie like this requires the usual amount of suspension of disbelief: Alligators are big, but not THAT big. They do roar, but not THAT loudly. They have killed people before, but the thinner, sleeker crocodiles, natives to Australia and the Nile River in Egypt, are more likely to attack and devour a human than their blunt-snouted American cousins. Nevertheless, beady-eyed living dinosaurs (Aja often repeats the word "prehistoric" when talking about them) will always seem somewhat villainous.
Movies like this have been roundly criticized in the past for giving their subjects a bad name: sharks with their endless supply of razor teeth, crocodilians with their slitted eyes and death rolls have captured the darkest corners of our imaginations and inspired gleeful horror movie after horror movie competing for scariest chomp and bloodiest limb removal. Many blame Jaws in particular for inspiring -- or encouraging -- the already existing worldwide hatred for sharks, which have been hunted and culled nearly to extinction in some parts of the world, sometimes simply because we feel their mere presence is a threat, even though it's more likely you'll get hit by lightning and die than you will by shark attack. In Crawl, there's a prominent (and foreboding) sign for an alligator farm near the start of the movie -- a common sight in Florida after overhunting forced alligator conservation efforts in the mid-20th century. They've bounced back extremely well since then and were removed from the list in the '80s; hunting for meat and harvesting skin for fashion houses is now a massive industry in the American South.
Crawl is somewhat aware of all of this, and Aja indeed knows what he's doing when he sets a monster movie inside a hurricane. In the end, it's the looming menace of climate change and its consequences that ought to scare us the most. "There is something about the world we live in, the disasters coming more and more often, not only in the U.S. but everywhere in the world," he says. "Sometimes the floodwater brings the 60 million-year-old neighbors back into our place." Crawl demands your respect for its antagonists: as soon as the water reaches your knees, humans are no longer the apex predators. Survival merely boils down to how well you can sneak by. Alligators are straight out of prehistory, they look like dinosaurs, they're the last of the giant reptiles that roamed the earth gnashing their big teeth. The fact is, they've been around longer than us, survived countless planetary disasters that would wipe out fragile human civilization, and will probably still be here long after we've gone. Just thinking about that is scary enough.