A summer movie, a natural disaster, a strong young woman in peril, a toothsome underwater predator or two — whaddaya need, a road map? In the grand tradition of Jaws homages, Alexandre Aja’s survivalist horror flick pits us vulnerable humans against Mother Nature’s little chompers — in this case, massive alligators straight outta the sunshine state’s swamplands. University of Florida swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) gets a worried phone call from her sister (Morfydd Clark) in Boston; their divorced dad (Barry Pepper) hasn’t been returning her calls, and with a Category 5 hurricane ready to make landfall, they’re afraid something’s happened to him.
So Haley braves the bad weather and makes the two-hour drive to see if he’s ok. She tracks him down to the old family house, a reminder of better times. Eventually, she finds him under the house. He’s out cold; there also seems to be some sort of injury on his shoulder. Soon, we meet the cause of it: a gigantic gator who’s very hungry. A few of his equally starving friends decide to join in on the fun. Meanwhile, as the storm rages outside, their underground deathtrap is slowly but surely being flooded. And guess who loves being submerged in water when it comes to hunting prey?
More or less a two-hander — more if you count the small, scaly paws of their digitally rendered costars, less if you count the fact that some folks may lose a hand during the proceedings — Crawl takes its time setting its trap before letting things rip. Once it does get everything in place, the movie settles into an efficient mousetrap mode, cutting off some avenues of escape while opening others and dangling the notion of salvation before snatching it away. A few others briefly enter the fray, but these characters might as well be listed in the credits as Meal No. 1 and Meal No. 2. It’s really up to Scodelario and Pepper to keep things moving, especially the former, and luckily for us, she proves to be a great scream-queen-in-training. Survivalist horror heroines have to simultaneously be vulnerable and steely — think Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, or Blake Lively’s shark-battling surfer in The Shallows — and the British actor is more than capable of holding the film on her broad shoulders while balancing both sides. She may have just found her niche.
Whether she or Pepper should be forced to play out the Electra-complex psychodrama and daddy-issues handwringing that Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s script forces upon them is another matter entirely; those tortured back-and-forths about how her stalled swimming career is really a product of psychological yadda yadda yadda and if only the family had stayed blah blah blah are a far greater threat to them then the reptilian killing machines. There’s an occasional self-seriousness to Crawl that doesn’t quite suit the proceedings, and you can tell that Aja is having more fun when he gets to indulge his inner gorehound more. He’s the French horror buff, after all, who took a 2010 3-D remake of Piranha — one of the more disposable ’70s cash-ins to swim in Jaws‘ wake — and turned it into a contender for the greatest Grand Guignol exploitation movie of the 21st century. Trashiness becomes him, and you can feel the film perk up whenever he can poke a bone through skin or coordinate the carnage of a feeding frenzy. Like the apex predators slithering at the center of it all, it gets the job done once it lets its more brutal, primal instincts take over. Bon Appétit.