Practical effects are all but dead. For the rest of our cinematic lives, we’ll be bombarded with uber-detailed CGI creatures fighting massive, unrealistic battles. But that doesn’t mean our characters and stories have to be as overdone as our effects; not all sci-fi and monster movies need an endless string of plot contrivances and complications.
Case in point: Crawl. When I heard about a new movie where humans go up against alligators, I assumed the gators would be mutated or somehow made intelligent. I figured scientists were involved and probably the military; perhaps a world-famous alligator hunter would emerge as the group’s leader, only to die tragically when the gators prove too much for him.
Refreshingly, none of that is the case. Crawl is absurd but also simple and straightforward: College student Haley (Kaya Scodelario) goes home during a hurricane because her father Dave (Barry Pepper) isn’t answering his phone. She arrives to find him bleeding in the basement (or crawlspace, if you will) and a large alligator lurking behind the pipes. Soon one alligator becomes two, then three, then more, leading Haley and Dave to plot their escape as heavy rain pours into the quickly flooding basement.
That’s it. Sure, the rising waters allow the alligators to occasionally swim-fly through windows like man-eating projectiles. And sure, Haley and Dave are bitten numerous times yet find the strength to not only push onward but also fight off reptilian enemy after reptilian enemy. But to the immense credit of director Alexandre Aja, writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, and producer Sam Raimi, there’s no scene where a renegade local scientist pours some ooze into a local river. There’s no subplot where a nearby nuclear power plant is emitting fumes that make the gators aggressive. There’s not even an underlying politicized subtext about lackluster disaster recovery strategies in the American South. It’s just humans versus alligators.
This is beyond refreshing. I’m all for a complicated overarching story when done right, but they’re hard to pull off. Sometimes audiences don’t want to see part 1 of an 8-part story; they don’t need a grandiose explanation as to why these particular monsters are attacking. Alligators on their own are scary enough; alligators that have appeared in your basement and want to eat you are that much scarier.
Haley and Dave are essentially your only two characters, and Scodelario and Pepper do just enough to make that work. Pepper has been saddled with some unfortunate “Florida Man” facial hair and cargo shorts, but you can buy him as a badass who self-applies what seems like a dozen tourniquets to his various bites and bone breaks. And though Scodelario’s heroic moment is telegraphed from the first second, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a movie like this, going from A to Z with minimal fuss feels right.
At a tight and energizing 87 minutes, there’s literally no reason not to see Crawl. Aja knows exactly what he’s creating here, as do his two leads; there are plenty of scares, a few laughs, and a gun being fired numerous times into an alligator’s mouth. In one of the most boring cinematic summers in recent memory, it is the gators that will save us.