French director Alexandre Aja has dipped his toes in these waters before, with the boob-obsessed spring-break bitey fishy flick Piranha 3D (2010), but Crawl paints itself as a more serious proposition. The set-up is brutally simple. We first meet Haley (Kaya Scodelario), a wannabe University of Florida swimmer, at a race. She’s got the kind of thousand-yard stare that shows she means business, and the daddy issues to match.
After losing the race, which is excitingly staged in a way that bodes well for the rest of the film, she remembers her father Dave (Barry Pepper) coaching her as a young girl. “You’re the apex predator all day,” he tells her in flashback – although anyone who’s seen any of the recent Predator movies might question if that’s a compliment or not.
There’s another positive omen here. In the locker room, while changing, Haley talks on the phone to her older sister Beth (Morfydd Clark). The camera stays on her face. With a Category 5 hurricane heading their way, neither sister can contact their wayward father Dave, so Haley decides to drive over to get him – no matter that the police are rather inconveniently closing the roads. As a radio newscaster warns locals not to shoot guns during a hurricane, wind and rain batter the car. Dave’s not at his flat, so she heads to their old family home, the fear being that he’s gone there to kill himself.
Exploring the house, which is being prepared for sale, Haley passes a doorway with her and Beth’s various heights pencilled into the frame, a nice bit of shorthand from screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (The Ward). A tree crashing through the window almost makes her jump out of her skin, but then she’s down under the house in the crawlspace expecting the worst, amid spiders, rats and – whisper it – gators. It’s an intriguing opening, pregnant with possibility.
Haley and the injured Dave are trapped just metres away from safety, in an arena full of secrets and sharp things, with the water levels rising and some (reasonably convincing) CGI gators patrolling the perimeters. But just when it seems the stage is set for a claustrophobic survival horror, Aja makes one of several jarring leaps that occur throughout the film and cuts to some looters outside stealing an ATM machine (and some snacks) from a petrol station as the weather rages around them. As they get deservedly munched, there are two ways the film can go: either things can escalate into a kind of Midnight Movie Creature Feature, where anything can happen but you don’t really care all that much how it turns out; or the story can zero in on Haley’s plight, eschewing more outré thrills to keep things up close and personal. Unfortunately, and to its detriment, it tries to do both.
Haley and Dave’s daddy-daughter issues are played out entirely through the medium of swimming, which is a bit of a stretch (sample exchange – Dave: “We may be stubborn but we do not give up.” Haley: “You gave up with mom.”). Dave’s line: “We are gonna beat these pea-brained lizard shits!” is practically a drinking game all of its own.
The film contains a few too many face-palm moments, our favourite being when Haley uses an alligator’s mouth as a holster. It’s also worth remembering that gators can swim at 20mph, while Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympic swimmer of all time, could only reach 6mph on a good day, so it’s a pretty big ask to believe Haley’s skills might save them. Keep those doubts at bay, though, and there’s a good time to be had. Maxime Alexandre, Aja’s cinematographer since 2003, pulls off some extraordinary underwater shots; Pepper is long overdue a full pardon for Battlefield Earth; and Scodelario has a convincing Sarah Connor vibe, diving in with gusto even as things get silly. By the time the end credits come around – and yes, they do use ‘See You Later Alligator’ – you’ll be more energised than traumatised, which, compared with Lake Placid et al, might be a cause to celebrate after all.