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‘Crawl’: Lean, effective creature feature runs like clockwork

Rizki Fachriansyah
Rizki Fachriansyah

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, July 10, 2019  /  02:36 pm

It is strange that, despite their preternatural ghastliness and somewhat prehistoric appeal, crocodiles and alligators have been largely neglected in the annals of monster movies.

Usually, the image that first pops up whenever you talk about creature features is either that of an angry great white shark in Steven Spielberg’s first-generation summer blockbuster Jaws ( 1975 ) or a T-Rex in Jurassic Park ( 1993 ), also directed by the prolific filmmaker.

Thanks to the memorable films introducing the two creatures to popular culture, sharks and dinosaurs have enjoyed enduring popularity as monster cinema’s bona fide superstars. 

Even as recently as last year, both species still managed to headline a couple of major studio releases opposite in-demand Hollywood actors – the prehistoric shark megalodon went up against Jason Statham in The Meg, while a wide array of dinosaurs, including the iconic T-Rex herself, squared off against Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

It’s safe to say at this point that fame is simply another mundane fact of life for sharks and dinosaurs.

However, in one underexposed corner of monster cinema history, things haven’t been looking too well for the crocodilia family. 

Only a limited selection of monster blockbusters featuring crocodiles as major characters is currently available; you can either go for the revered cult classic Lake Placid ( 1999 ) or any of its cheap sequels and blatant rip-offs. 

The quality disparity is even more severe in the case of alligators, as there is virtually no known work of cinematic ingenuity that features the bulky reptiles as notable characters. 

As if aware of this persistent creature discrimination in monster cinema, notable horror craftsman Alexandre Aja of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D fame went against the grain with his latest film Crawl – a long-overdue showcase for alligators’ dramatic chops after all these agonizing years spent in obscurity.

So revolutionary is Crawl in its noble commitment to #GatorRepresentation that it may well be the first true genre masterwork to have successfully rehabilitated the predatory reptiles’ cinematic reputation. 

The film’s initial set-up is simple: Floridians Halley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave Keller (Barry Pepper) find themselves stuck in the crawlspace under their family home during a devastating hurricane and subsequent flash flood, putting them face-to-snout with a family of alligators that roam freely amid the chaos. 

Aja – teaming up with the legendary Sam Raimi (director of The Evil Dead and the original Spider-Man trilogy) who serves as one of the film’s producers – wastes absolutely no time on plot preliminaries. He keeps the narrative strictly grounded in the survival horror mode, ensuring that every moment and line of dialogue included in the final cut serves its beat-by-beat momentum. 

Sure, there are brief dramatic lulls throughout the film designed to deepen the interpersonal relationships between the main characters, but they are kept at an unobtrusive minimum. It is evident that Aja has such a clear vision for his direction; he jettisons any extraneous component, making sure that the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. 

Crawl is one of those set-piece films that fully commits to a high-concept premise and excels at making the most out of it. Once all of the pieces are in place, the film essentially becomes a feature-length action sequence. 

Several of its best scenes play out like video game stages that constantly present new challenges and obstacles for the characters to tackle. In addition to an entire generation of bloodthirsty ‘gators, seemingly minor problems like a heavy wooden cabinet blocking a basement trapdoor add to the film’s relentless pacing. You know a director has done an exceptional job when the artificial sense of danger becomes genuinely palpable. 

Speaking of the alligators, the beefy amphibians have never looked so menacing on screen. The computer renditions of the humongous beasts are shockingly convincing, with every bit of their skin texture looking more photo-real than ever before. Pair their threatening appearance with an equally unnerving sound design, and you’ve got yourself the ultimate depiction of murderous alligators in cinema. 

To say that Crawl is influenced by Spielberg’s creature feature phase is an understatement. Aja takes more than a few cues from Spielberg’s monster oeuvre, cribbing the great American filmmaker’s cinematic grammar almost entirely. The film is therefore steeped in Spielbergian sensibilities: You have your point-of-view shots from the perspective of the alligators as they hunt their main characters like in Jaws, as well as a hide-and-seek sequence that’s reminiscent of the popular kitchen scene in Jurassic Park.

None of these similarities are meant as straight knocks-offs, however. Aja still injects the film with his own brand of tension and intensity that would feel out of place in a Spielberg joint. Aja works like a champ and acknowledges his major influence by including a cute shot of a toy shark with human legs jutting out of its toothy mouth in the film.

Scoledario, playing as the film’s protagonist Halley, is utterly phenomenal. Her performance perfectly captures the character’s emotional vulnerabilities and resolute attitude. Scoledario’s naturalistic approach to acting lends the character some sympathetic qualities. It’s a remarkable feat, especially in a film that prioritizes suspense above all else. 

Pepper is similarly terrific as Halley’s supportive father. The rapport that he forms with his screen daughter over the course of the film feels refreshingly organic. His pitch-perfect delivery of dry humor also helps makes Dave Keller a character worth rooting for. 

Crawl is Aja’s superlative return to form. His ambitions may be modest, but they don’t stop him from making a thoroughly effective thriller made from all the best creature feature ingredients. As always, please keep pushing for quality alligator representation in movies. (wng)

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