There’s not really a ton to Crawl, Alexandre Aja’s latest creature feature, beyond the very reasons that brought you to the theater in the first place. The director, best known for films like High Tension and the remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, knows that you’re here to see some alligators rip people’s arms off, and sure enough, he’s gonna give you what you want. That’s the height of his ambition here, and there’s something oddly effective about that: it acts as a sort of Rorscach test for your particular belief system. In its thematic plainness, it allows for the audience to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Want to see this as a conservative fantasy about the preservation of the family unit? There’s enough here for that read, as Hailey (Kaya Scodelario), a collegiate swimmer at the University of Florida (yes, that’s right, she’s a gator), has to return to her family home in order to save her depressed father (Barry Pepper), who has found himself trapped in the crawlspace (with a whole bunch of Florida mascots) beneath their home and help him move past his divorce from her mother. How about as a climateploitation thriller? Well, there’s a Category 5 hurricane on the way, which is smashing levees left and right and tearing down trees all over: An ominous depiction of the future for plenty of Floridians, who stand to be battered by increasingly powerful storms as our planet continues to warm. Hell, you could even get mad about the portrayals of the killer ‘gators on display here if you really wanted to, even if there is a long and established tradition of the real-world creature feature disregarding every single truth about how an animal actually is stretching all the way back to the shark in Jaws.
However, Aja’s only interested in doing one thing here: Making a straight-up roller coaster ride of a film. At that, he succeeds; Crawl is a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am blitzkrieg of goofy fun, only intending to outright entertain you for the duration of its 88-minute runtime. Make no mistake: this isn’t an attempt to claim that you should turn off your brain when you enter the theater, it’s just that your visceral reaction to the moment-to-moment thrills are are the forefront of Aja’s mind. Not nearly as overwhelmingly tense as High Tension, nor as wildly humorous as his Piranha remake form a couple years back, Crawl is a still a solidly satisfying experience, a perfect piece of counterprogramming to the summer slate. It’s similar in nature to Fede Alverez’s Don’t Breathe from 2016, another late-summer programmer that was also produced by Sam Raimi which found an audience through a solid understanding of horror fundamentals and a novel concept (if, ultimately, it came to a pitiful conclusion). Raimi’s influence is all over this film, from the gore, which is ample and satisfying — ever want to see a dude get straight-up quartered by a group of ‘gators, or see Barry Pepper snap his shattered leg back into place? — to the camerawork, whose handheld first-person feel takes you inside the eyes of a hungry hungry alligator.
The creatures themselves are, well, a little rough: the CGI is often incredibly inconsistent, with a few early shots’ gator models looking ripped straight out of an aughts-era DTV horror flick. Yet Aja understands his weakness, much like Spielberg did with his mechanical shark back in the day, and keeps them concealed in either darkness or murky water. The stellar sound design goes a long way into making the gators feel like they have weight and heft — their scutes (the little spikes on their backs) scrape against the metal pipes in the crawlspace, their jaws snap shut and rend limbs from torsos — and Aja’s claustrophobic setting keeps the film taught and creepy. Its speedy narrative momentum and economical storytelling never makes things feel too light and insubstantial, but it continually gives our protagonists interesting new traps to find their way out of. Crawl is all about escalation, and while it might not be enough to make it much more memorable beyond leaving the theater, it’s oodles of fun while it’s unspooling in front of you.