A group of alligators is called a “congregation.” A bad movie about alligators is called “Crawl.”
If your experience with the film is anything like mine, you were first introduced to it via a trailer that’s been provoking unintentional laughter in movie theaters over the last few months. You shouldn’t judge a movie by its marketing, just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but suffice to say that Alexandre Aja’s thriller lives down to expectations.
It’s toothless despite its alligator antagonists, not least because it never bothers linking its premise — a category 5 hurricane in Florida that causes a flood — to the existential threat hastening such extreme weather events in the first place. There’s something strange, in 2019, about a movie like this positioning actual alligators as the villain and not, you know, climate change; that the term is never even mentioned seems deliberately myopic, especially in light of the fact that “Crawl” arrives in theaters with much of New Orleans underwater.
Even so, the single-minded simplicity of its plotting can at times be an asset rather than a hindrance; in a summer even more bogged down by needless sequels and remakes than most, “Crawl” is, at the very least, a lean thriller that isn’t based on an existing property. The lion’s share of the story takes place in the soon-to-be-sold former home of Dave and Haley Keller (Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelario, respectively), a semi-estranged father and daughter whose shared love of competitive swimming is no longer enough to keep them from drifting apart. (She’s on scholarship at the University of Florida, making her a literal Gator whose dad hypes her up by calling her an “apex predator,” just in case the script wasn’t on-the-nose enough already.)
As luck would have it, Haley’s attempt to check on her pops as the storm worsens gets her stuck in the same crawlspace where he was just attacked by one of the ornery creatures. (Whether their aggression is due to having all them teeth and no toothbrush or just an enlarged medulla oblongata is a discussion for another time.) Dave at one point gives her a pep talk about believing in herself as she’s trying to use her athletic skills to save his life, which is sure to have savvy viewers wondering: Might these lessons apply to more than just swimming?
“Crawl” is effectively a two-hander, as every would-be rescuer proves to be a comically useless plot device whom the gators quickly eliminate lest Haley’s quest for self-actualization be impeded. This satisfies the gore quotient while also serving as an effective display for the reptiles themselves, an impressive-enough CGI display of teeth, snouts and scutes. They inspire a kind of detached fear, intimidating but never repulsive.
Aja has been a horror journeyman for the better part of two decades, earning goodwill and acclaim for “High Tension” before coming close to squandering it with his remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha.” He’s one of those filmmakers who frustrates not because he doesn’t have talent but because he does — and makes mediocre movies in spite of that skill. “Crawl” bears as much resemblance to his supernatural family drama “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” as it does to his New French Extremity roots, but it still feels like he’s settling into director-for-hire mode.
Scodelario, late of the “Maze Runner” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises, has less to sink her teeth into here than she did in this year’s Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” but does the best she can with the material. Whatever problems “Crawl” has, its stars aren’t among them — both Scodelario and Pepper are game, making the drama as believable as the script allows them.
As much as you’re rooting for them to survive this ordeal, though, there’s never any reason to root against the gators. They aren’t malicious or evil; they’re just alligators doing alligator things. They aren’t actively bad, which is more than be said of “Crawl.”