Why should sharks have all the summer fun? That seems to be the brainstorm behind Crawl, a movie directed by Alexandre Aja (Piranha 3D) in which a plucky college student, her plucky dad and their plucky dog battle not just a passel of free-ranging alligators but a Category 5 hurricane.
Part disaster movie, part survival horror, the movie offers audiences too much and not enough. It's generous in the misfortunes it heaps on its protagonists but minimal in scope. With a single location for most of its run-time and a tiny cast, most of whom exist only long enough to serve as alligator bait, Crawl should appeal to those horror fans who complain when horror films add too much "extra" stuff (psychology, humor, camp, colorful performances, philosophical pretensions, real-world resonance) to the horror. For those of us who prefer a wider scope, however, this movie's stripped-down thrills are less scary than claustrophobic.
Competitive college swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) has exactly two characteristics: She loves to win, and she loves her dad (Barry Pepper), who taught her to love winning by telling her she was an "apex predator." We learn in a leaden expository conversation that Mom and Dad are now divorced, and Dad's not handling it well. So when Dad stops answering his phone as a hurricane bears down on his Florida town, Haley drives south to find him.
Find him she does — in the crawl space under the family homestead he's supposed to be selling, surrounded by the aforementioned passel of gators. The two of them will remain in that muddy, low-ceilinged crawl space for most of the film, desperately trying to escape as the water rises and the gators get hungrier.
That's all there is to the movie, save for a few exterior scenes in which supporting characters (really closer to extras) end up as gator chow. There's scant suspense about whether Haley and her dad will survive — they weather multiple grave injuries without bleeding out — or whether Haley will prove that she is, indeed, the apex predator.
Scodelario has an appropriate steeliness and a convincingly lithe, ruthless physicality for the role, while her CG antagonists look believable enough to be scary and aren't overly anthropomorphized. Aja wrings maximum functionality from the crawl space setting by filling it with twists, turns, hidey-holes and obstacles; spears of light from outside supply meager, dramatic illumination.
The movie has the simplicity of a survival horror video game, but it's less fun when we can't navigate the maze and evade the critters. Instead, we're stuck listening to Obligatory Character Development Conversation No. 2, in which Dad and Haley take a breather to lament their postdivorce estrangement.
Do these two have fond, quirky memories? Running jokes? Not in this movie. I haven't bothered to give Dad a name because his personality starts and stops at "sad sack who complains about his wife's abandonment." Perhaps he's supposed to represent the "forgotten man," and his and Haley's bravery in the face of those gators is emblematic of America's stubborn, enduring strength ("Look at us! Still the apex predator!"). As Noah Berlatsky pointed out in GQ, the "real villain" of Crawl may well be climate crisis, but there's zero recognition of that on-screen.
To the extent the movie says anything, it feels like pandering boilerplate. So thank God for those gators, which are refreshingly straightforward, in a classic animal-attack-movie way, in their eagerness to chow down on any warm body that moves. By the end, I was kind of rooting for them.