Gator thriller ‘Crawl’ is among the best simple films of 2019 (Movie review)

C

rawl” probably would’ve been called “Gatorcane” if it was part of the SyFy channel’s “Sharknado”-era offerings, but luckily it’s a mainstream movie with believable scenarios and top-shelf special effects. In fact, this effort from director Alexandre Aja (“Piranha 3D”) – now available for rental and streaming — might be the best one-sentence-premise movie of 2019: A college student and her dad are stuck in a flooding Florida house during a hurricane when alligators attack.

Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, “Crawl” builds up the tension of the approaching Category-5 Hurricane Wendy with the surreal calm-before-the-storm scenario of Haley (Kaya Scodelario) wrapping up a swim practice. (Ironically, she swims for the Florida Gators.) We can hear thunder outside the aquatics center. She and her out-of-state sister can’t reach their dad, Dave (Barry Pepper, “61*”), on his phone, so Haley drives inland toward the storm to check on him.

I like the fact that Aja plays all of this totally straight, so that “Crawl” is both totally intense and totally fun.

Of course, Haley’s swimming skills will be needed to overcome the gator threat; her dad’s tough-love coaching tactics through the years might prove to be life-saving in addition to scholarship-grabbing. This is cheesy writing, sure, but the actors are good. Scodelario, who I recall being bland in “The Maze Runner,” is perfect here as an Everywoman college student. Pepper portrays an odd sense of calm through this whole thing; he certainly doesn’t oversell anything. But that’s the way it would go in a flood – things gradually get worse, and panic might not be expressed in sudden bursts.

Aja’s horror-film notes are backed by superb gator effects. I assume these aren’t well-trained stunt alligators, so we’re likely seeing a mix of practical and CGI effects. The hurricane and flooding imagery rings true – with Serbia as a surprisingly good stand-in for the Sunshine State — and we get a plausible explanation for why these particular gators are so riled up. (In reality, crocodiles are the species more likely to attack humans.)

The nature of Dave’s and Haley’s travails are logistically clear and grounded, as they are stuck in a gradually flooding crawlspace – protected by pipes that keep the gators at bay, but which also prevent them from reaching the stairs. Things unfold in almost real time as the duo tries to work their way to higher ground, sometimes stopped by gators, sometimes by frustrations like a stuck trapdoor. So it goes.

The 87-minute “Crawl” also serves up some great kills, most deliciously when a group of hurricane-heisters – who heave a whole ATM machine onto their boat – run into trouble. I like the fact that Aja plays all of this totally straight, so that “Crawl” is both totally intense and totally fun. And sure, totally disposable, but you won’t find a better Gator-Hurricane thriller outside of football season.

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