Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Jose Palma, Morfydd Clark
Running Time: 87 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Anyone familiar with that memorably hilarious and gasp-inducing scene in 1997's Anaconda when Jon Voight's certifiable snake hunter Paul Serone is eaten whole before his winking corpse is regurgitated might soon get flashbacks. It's a spectacular moment in a less-than-amazing, but ridiculously fun film that's best enjoyed in the presence of a game audience in a packed theater. And it's hard not to think of it while watching horror maestro Alexandre Aja's Crawl and assume it had to be somewhere in the back of the director's mind as he crafted a horror disaster entry many assumed would veer closer to Sharknado, but with killer crocs. Instead, it is still somewhat funny and ridiculous, but in the best way possible, and also much better made than those aforementioned titles it seemed destined to resemble in quality. Quentin Tarantino going so far as to name this his favorite film of 2019 might come as a surprise to no one given his eclectic tastes, but he's on to something in that genre movies this well executed are too frequently dismissed out of hand on their premise alone. While I wouldn't rank it nearly that high (or maybe even at all), it's at least easier to appreciate that praise when final product does undeniably deliver a good time.
After a disappointing practice, University of Florida swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) gets a call from her older sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) from Boston warning her that Category 5 Hurricane Wendy is about to make landfall in Florida and that she should evacuate. But when it occurs to Haley that she should check on her estranged father, Dave (Barry Pepper), she discovers he isn't at his condo, but their old Coral Lake family home she thought he sold when her parents divorced. After deceiving a police officer Beth used to date, she's able to get into the quickly flooding area to find him unconscious and trapped in the crawl space under the house, seriously injured from an alligator attack.
While attempting to drag her dad out, Haley realizes they have more company than anticipated, as multiple alligators have managed to sneak through the storm drain and have them trapped. With a rapidly intensifying storm and flood waters rising, Haley and Dave must fight injury and hungry gators to swim out of the basement to safety. But what's waiting for them outside isn't much of an improvement.
At first glance, it may not be obvious just how effective a thriller this is because so many like it are dumped into theaters each week before disappearing, often justifiably. If the set-up doesn't inspire confidence that we're in for something dramatically different, that's mostly because we're not. And that's okay since Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's straightforward script leaves so little room for missteps, allowing enough leeway for Aja to do what he's done "best" in some of his previous horror entries, frequently to the point of overkill. Usually, dabbling in more mainstream, accessible fare like this would seem to be the kiss of death for a director synonymous with the disparaging "torture porn" label, but this time around he's considerably more focused on ratcheting up the tension.
If alligators dining on humans is a major component, the survival story still takes center stage, with some of the best scenes and sequences revolving around this father-daughter tandem putting their heads together while working on their own personal baggage. The gator attack scenes are spectacular, as Aja takes a page out of the Spielberg playbook in resisting the temptation to overexpose them, making their well-timed appearances count. Doing a superior job to most in avoiding to break the rules of the world he's created, the CGI gators aren't some kind of hybrid reptilian mutants gifted with incredible speed, but instead moving how real ones would, and unexpectedly faster if necessary. This leads to many exciting scenes with Haley trying to outswim them as the always underrated Barry Pepper fights for his daughter and powers through the pain to concoct a plan.
Most recently seen as a bi-polar figure skater in Netflix's unfairly cancelled Spinning Out, Kaya Scodelario again makes you wonder how she isn't already a major star, physically and emotionally putting herself through the ringer as an athlete whose grit and credibility ground even the most questionable circumstances in a harsh reality. It's also easy to endorse a thriller that seems so invested in the fate of a dog, with hardly a moment going by where we're not at least made aware of the female terrier's whereabouts. I fully expected to only see the pet once or twice before they decided audiences just wouldn't care or think to remember, only to be thankfully proven wrong.
A young woman trying to save her father from alligators invading a basement during a hurricane explains all that's necessary in determining whether you're up for the ride. And yet that doesn't quite do Crawl justice. For what it is, it's kind of perfect. Strong, resourceful characters, a tight, no-nonsense script, a brisk running time and an impressive lead performance equals escapism done well. With a knowing, self-referential wink, it channels the spirit those cheesy 90's adventure thrillers while successfully managing to top more than a few of them.