Fifty years after Steven Spielberg made a whole nation afraid to go in the water, sharks still prowl the summer movie season. This is, in fact, the fourth consecutive year that a descendent of Jaws will descend upon multiplexes during the warmest season—next month brings the gnashing teeth and ominous fins of a 47 Meters Down sequel. But flesh-eating fish don’t have a monopoly on the aquatic horror business. Crawl, which shimmies ravenously into theaters today, invites a less represented but arguably just as deadly predator to the summer feeding frenzy: the mighty alligator, cold-blooded killing machine of the bayou and the scourge of riverboat gamblers everywhere. If the log-like reptilian menace doesn’t gnaw on the public’s nerves as consistently as the shark does, this no-frills, claustrophobic creature feature suggests that maybe it should. After all, it’s not like a Great White can follow you onto dry land.
Granted, there are only so many places a foolish skinny-dipper might slip into the maw of a fortunate gator, which is why Crawl is set in Florida, a natural habitat of this real-life monster. As its title teases, most of the movie takes place in a crawlspace, the bottom level of a Sunshine State house rocked by adverse weather. Trapped in this treacherously cramped basement is a college swim champ, Haley (Kaya Scodelario), who’s come to find her recently divorced father, Dave (Barry Pepper), unconscious and injured in the depths of the property. The culprits: hungry, oversized alligators, slinking around in the darkness. They’re not all this besieged family unit has to worry about. A Category 5 hurricane is bearing down hard on the area, slowly flooding the house and blocking escape routes. If the gators don’t kill the two, the rising water level just might.
The director, Alexandre Aja, has found danger in the drink before. A decade ago, he knocked out an outrageously gory 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha, putting a bunch of nubile spring-breakers on the menu. Crawl doesn’t skimp on the carnage—those rows of snapping teeth do their bloody damage to vulnerable appendages. But this is no jokey splatterfest. Aja, a French merchant of grue who rarely repeats himself, has made a slender survival thriller instead. The bare-bones plot unfolds as a series of nerve-shredding objectives: get to the phone, grab the radio, open the hatch, reach the boat. Space, queasily limited within the single setting, becomes an X factor in the human-versus-nature struggle; Haley and Dave might be perilously stuck in a perpetual crouch, but they’re also sometimes saved by the close quarters, by their ability to scramble through tight spots and bend in a way their scaly adversaries can’t.
Produced by Evil Dead honcho Sam Raimi, Crawl is dumb genre fun, but it’s not too dumb. The gators, convincingly summoned from the digital gene pool, are perhaps cunning even by the standards of this sneak-attack species—they know just when to hold their hisses and growls for a well-timed jump scare. But they’re not too big or too unstoppable or too intelligent; you wouldn’t confuse them for escapees from the Deep Blue Sea laboratory. The humans, meanwhile, don’t make blatantly stupid decisions just to move the plot along or thrust themselves into further danger. They do walk off an awful lot of serious injury, even managing to hold up their respective ends of conversations while holding their gaping wounds/stumps. (Those hoping for some gnarly kills will be relieved to hear that Crawl supplies plenty of expendable supporting characters, including some unlucky rescue workers and a trio of thieves ransacking a flooded gas station across the street—a set piece that allows Aja to play with distance and background action in devious ways.)
But about those conversations. If any one thing holds back this modest, skillfully made potboiler from true B-movie glory, it’s the human drama. The script, by brothers Michael and Shawn Rasumssen (The Ward), presents Haley and Dave’s battle against the elements as a therapeutic ordeal, endured in the symbolically subterranean space of the old family house. Will the two escape not just the hungry gators but also the resentment that’s forced a wedge between them over the years? Will dad’s tough-love encouragement, doled out in flashbacks to the days when he was still Haley’s swimming coach, come in handy during the experience? It’s pure formulaic pap, but then, so were the emotional motivations of The Shallows and The Meg. Shark or gator, no leviathan can compete with the deadliness of a tortured family backstory.