I’ll say one thing for Crawl, the new gator caper clawing its way into theaters this weekend: It’s rather snappily paced. Clocking in at an easy, breezy 87 minutes, director Alexandre Aja’s film wastes absolutely zero time setting its scaly predators on its unsuspecting victims, who are trapped in a creepy crawl space under their home. And because co-writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (The Ward, The Inhabitants) surmised that viewers might require a bit more peril from a summer popcorn flick, they’ve also added in a Category 5 hurricane into the equation. Twister, meet Jaws, and add a sprinkling of slasher iconography (here, the crawl space substitutes for the basement, since the setting is Florida, but c’mon, white people — when will you learn to stop walking down those stairs armed with only a flashlight?).
Unfortunately, despite this unique hybrid summer-movie plot pedigree, and despite being prominently plugged as a Sam Raimi production, Crawl is somehow a bit lacking in the personality department. Part of the problem is that British actress Kaya Scodelario (primarily known for her work in the Maze Runner film series, as well as TV shows like Skins) is given so little to work with in her role as Haley, a focused, overachieving college student on the swim team at the University of Florida (go Gators!), who drives down to her childhood home to make sure her father (Barry Pepper) — who recently went through a divorce and isn’t answering her calls — is safe as the storm sets in. Scodelario is game and gives it her all, but she’s essentially the only character we spend any prolonged time with in this film, as when she arrives at the house, she finds her dad unconscious in the crawl space, with ominous injuries to his shoulder and leg.
As she attempts to drag dear ol’ dad out of the crawl space — where he had been working on a plumbing repair — so they can seek help, she immediately comes face to face with a big ol’ gator, and they’re forced to seek refuge behind some pipes where the creatures can’t fit. The water level keeps rising as the hurricane grows closer, and their options for escaping seem to be dwindling: There’s furniture sitting on the would-be escape hatch, and they can’t go through the drainage pipes because that’s where the alligators (yep, they soon discover there’s more than one) keep getting in from. Pretty much anyone who could have come to their rescue meets a grisly end, and here the filmmakers have some fun dreaming up some inventive action sequences. Watching a petty and completely unsuspecting teenage looter get snapped up while grabbing a few hot dogs (and one last Twinkie!) from the nearly submerged convenience store across the street? Perversely satisfying.
Crawl’s at its B-movie best when it attempts to insert some grim humor into the proceedings, but unfortunately it mostly eschews comedy in favor of half-baked father-daughter drama (yep, you guessed it, Haley’s dad used to be her rather demanding swim coach, and yep, they’re both quite stubborn and hard-headed, as outlined in an incredibly expository phone call between Haley and her older sister early on in the film). There’s something tonally bland about the entire thing: While the action sequences are compelling and the film more than delivers on its simple premise (killer alligators, y’all), the end result just isn’t particularly memorable or compelling — the filmic equivalent of a cheap souvenir that says “My parents went to Coral Lake, and all I got was this T-shirt.” There are probably better ways to beat the heat.