While B-movie commander-in-chief Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop ; The Commuter ) has taken the year off ― surely inundated with The Rock’s oppressive demands on 2020’s Jungle Cruise, the next instalment in the Disney ride-turned-film-franchise ― genre director Alexandre Aja has taken the reins for 2019’s leading, low-budget, single-location thriller. In concept, Crawl operates less in the vein of Jaws (1975) and more like Collet-Serra’s own girl-meets-dangerous-water-creature feature The Shallows (2016), where Blake Lively, stranded at sea, battles it out with a great white shark as some kind of convoluted metaphor for overcoming her personal trauma. Crawl sets up a similar conceit: student-athlete (pro swimmer, of course) Haley (Kaya Scodelario) has drifted from her once-encouraging father and former coach, Dave (Barry Pepper). In her efforts to save him from their swiftly-flooding former family home caught deep in a Floridian Category 5 hurricane, Haley must confront not only the physical horror of fending off a giant group of gators, but also reconcile with now-muddy family relationships.
Among this current slate of 2019 releases, it’s nice to finally see something that a) hasn’t reanimated the carcass of its IP (live-action remakes of Aladdin; The Lion King), b) resorted to globe-trotting action beats (Men in Black: International; John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum) or c) strung me along in some never-ending assembly line of sequeldom (Avengers: Endgame; Spider-Man: Far From Home). Crawl is exactly what is says on the Instagram story ad: girl vs. gator. You’re gonna get what you came for, no strings attached. More than anything, it’s a relief to put the paratextual stuff aside for just a moment and watch a filmmaker commit to 90 minutes of closed-circuit “croc kino”, as facetiously coined by Rough Cut co-editor Eliza Janssen.
In The Shallows, Collet-Serra was just as adrift formally and thematically as Lively was physically; in Crawl, however, Aja is afforded an entire family home within which to work. He structures this domestic space like a videogame, cordoning off each floor ― vertically, from crawlspace to rooftop ― as individual levels for Haley to grapple with, where familial baggage is every bit as intimidating a mini-boss as the snapping jaws of a gator. Such melodramatic sub-plotting doesn’t always stick, but that’s not we’re here for though Scodelario is able to sell these emotional segues as much as their physically-demanding counterparts. She battles gators with a combination of inhuman wit and aerobics which is awe-inspiring, even from a distance ― but its when the waterworks start that Crawl’s sentimental streak pulls us close (I’d be lying if I said my emotional reaction was only crocodile tears tbh).
The strength of this innocuous strand of low budget, single-location thrillers is in their commitment to no-nonsense pleasures ― this girl vs. monster trope has been retold endless times, but if you can do it well and add a little spice to it, what’s the harm? Films like Crawl and The Shallows are built to scratch that theme park ride itch ― those few guaranteed minutes of gut-deep delight, extrapolating the thrills of a 4D simulator beyond the fairgrounds. This is down-on-your-knees dirty filmmaking ― even if the mud is fake as hell and Aja’s form is conspicuously clean and contained. There’s an infinite amount of glee to be found in keeping innocent side characters alive just long enough for us to give a shit before feeding them one-by-one to the group of gators, sucking the life out of them in the most gruesome way possible. That perfectly-choreographed bird’s-eye-view spiral formation dismemberment? Chef’s kiss if I ever saw one.
Which is why I’m anxious about The Rock’s induction of Jaume Collet-Serra into his frat house of directorial goons via Jungle Cruise. At first glance, they look like a perfect fit ― Collet-Serra directs high-profile stars through high-concept plots, and The Rock jumps at the opportunity to flex his physique in anything where he shares the poster with a big, bold single-word title. (You have to commend his commitment.) But there’s also potential for the pair to strike a dissonant note; The Rock wrings maximum amounts of computer-generated carnage and star-driven self-referentiality out of his >$100 million-dollar budgets, splashing excess cash on Collet-Serra’s mid-budget escape room disposition. If Collet-Serra has the capacity to make it work, then so be it: he might just be the David to Dwayne Johnson’s Goliath. But if not, pour one out for the withering pocket of movies that revel in the dirtiness of their tropes, sans the constant winking, quipping, and ironic pretentions. I’m just glad we get one of these lean, mean genre films a year.
Crawl is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University writing a little something something about post-cinema and the desktop horror film. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.