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With The Shallows, 47 Meters Down, their innumerable straight-to-VOD ripoffs, and now Crawl, the "young woman gets trapped in a single location while being hunted by a water-based predator" premise is beginning turn into its own niche sub-genre. Of course the main goal here is to use the shoestring plot as a jumping off point for a series of pulse-pounding sequences where our heroine has to traverse between point A and point B in order to get a tiny bit closer to safety, with the sharp-toothed and always-hungry-for-human-flesh monster always an inch away from snapping its delicious meal. These flicks wisely all run under ninety minutes, since their episodic structure would certainly overstay their welcome through a more epic approach. And even then, they sometimes do run out of steam despite the fairly economic storytelling.
In the sense of spectacle alone, Crawl passes most technical scrutiny with flying colors. Director Alexandre Aja, whose filmography swings between unapologetic camp (Piranha 3D) and suspense-heavy exploitation (High Tension), once again shows his distinct ability to make the audience jump out of their seats like a modern William Castle. Say what you will about the guy's choice of scripts (High Tension sports one of the dumbest screenplays ever committed to paper and The Hills Have Eyes remake completely misses the original's point), but his over-the-top style of nail-biting theatrics is certainly a welcome addition to mid-budget, studio-driven horror. This makes him a perfect pick for Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's effectively simple and streamlined script, about a competitive swimmer named Haley (Kaya Scodelario) who ends up having to defend his injured estranged father (Barry Pepper) trapped in a basement against bloodthirsty giant gators during a Category 5 hurricane in, where else, Florida.
Once this conflict is established barely into the second act, the script predictably indulges in one suspenseful sequence after the other as Haley tries to figure out a way to get her and her father to safety while the hurricane floods the basement as a form of ticking time clock for the protagonist. The visceral terror is most effective as Aja insinuates the gators' presence rather than outright showing them. It's a testament to Spielberg's genius how the lengthy POV shots of the underwater monster steadily approaching its victims' feet are still effective almost half a century after the release of Jaws. Aja's fully aware of this both suspenseful and practically economic trope, so he gets an impressive amount of mileage out of it for such a modern outing.
The VFX behind the gators is top-notch craftsmanship. Aja takes the lessons of another Spielberg classic, this time Jurassic Park, and sticks to practical models for gator close-ups and only relying on CGI for the wide shots. I was especially impressed with how seamlessly the CG gators interact with the practical water elements, which enables the audience to be fully immersed into the terror without being distracted by sub-par VFX work. As solid as the visual effects are, the real star here is the sound design. I realize that the audience might be tempted to wait for such a mid-budget project to pop up on streaming platforms, but the true Crawl experience belongs in a theatre, which fully utilizes the surround channels to give the audience an immersive ride. Every growl of the gators literally vibrates the seats and puts the fear directly into the pit of one's stomach.
Of course there has to be a shoehorned character arc so the movie doesn't feel solely like a glorified theme park ride. Haley is set up as being frustrated with her swimming results, and we later find out that it was his father's draconian coaching practices that made her estranged to him. The script wants to have its cake and eat it too as we get the obligatory bonding moment as the father apologizes to Haley for being so tough on her, yet it's also hard to shake the feeling that if he wasn't, they'd both be gator poop by the end of the day. Will the climax come full circle by addressing Haley's issues with becoming a great swimmer? Does anyone think otherwise? I always find it amusing how the specific inner conflict of the protagonist in these films is always directly connected to the external conflict they have to overcome. I would have gotten a kick out of it if Haley was instead set up as a beat poet and the climax involved her surviving the gators using her politically-charged rhymes.
For the most part, Aja keeps focused on a tension-over-gore approach, which is what makes a ten minute chunk full of characters whose only purpose is to be devoured by the gators in increasingly macabre ways stick out that much more. The gore is indeed creative (One of the poor suckers is turned into a human piñata), but the borderline goofy tone doesn't match rest of the film. It's as if Jaws takes a smoke break while Piranha 3D takes over. The screenplay for Crawl is as paint-by-numbers as it gets, but Aja's deft direction and Scodelario's intense and raw performance turns it into a fun thrill ride that, while nowhere near a cinematic masterpiece, deserves to be seen, and especially heard, on the big screen.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com