My favorite thing about the summer blockbuster season doesn’t come until December, when I dimly recall all the mediocre movies I paid to watch when it was 100 degrees outside. “My Letterboxd tells me I saw Men in Black: International and Dark Phoenix and, uh, Shaft , but I have no memory of them.” Things are particularly dire this summer: franchise fatigue has set in, box office totals are bleak, and since May, there’s only been four above-average big-budget movies: Pokémon Detective Pikachu, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Toy Story 4, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. When “Deadpool voices a yellow rat” is an example of a good movie, something might be wrong.
Then, out of the swamps, came the gators.
Directed by Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Piranha 3D) and written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, Crawl — a.k.a. the gator movie — is one of the most fun movie-going experiences I’ve had at the theater this summer. Don’t get me wrong, Crawl isn’t a misunderstood masterpiece (the 87 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes is about right); it’s what you should expect from a movie that markets itself with “Rated R for Reptiles.” But after sitting through middle-of-the-road, quickly-forgotten “I just want to be in an air-conditioned room” fare like Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Yesterday, it felt like a revelation.
Here are a few reasons why.
1. If you have no idea what Crawl is about, you clearly haven’t seen the poster, which provides all the necessary information (“THEY WILL HUNT YOU”). But just in case, here’s the official plot summary: “When a massive hurricane hits her Florida hometown, Haley ignores evacuation orders to search for her missing father. Finding him gravely injured in the crawl space of their family home, the two become trapped by quickly encroaching floodwaters. As time runs out to escape the strengthening storm, Haley and her father discover that the rising water level is the least of their fears.”
There’s some important information that’s left out, like how Haley is a swimmer, but you get the idea: father and daughter are stuck in a gunky crawl space during a hurricane, gators come. Crawl doesn’t hop all over the world or even Florida (although it was filmed in Serbia); most of the action is contained to the house, where the danger is twofold: the rising water and the alligators. There’s a clear sense of geography (you’re able to mentally map escape routes along with the characters), which is vital for a horror movie. Crawl isn’t as successful at feeling trapped as, say, Don’t Breathe, but after watching the movie, I can say with full confidence: I would not like to be trapped in my crawl space (NOT a basement) during a hurricane with alligators, thank you very much.
2. Crawl occasionally tries to make you care about the human characters with an emotional back story about blah blah blah it doesn’t matter. You’re there for one reason and one reason only: the gators. And boy are there gators! You think there might only be one, but there’s another. And another! It’s good. The alligators look good, too, especially on a $13.5 million budget. To paraphrase The Simpsons, whenever the gators are not on-screen, all the other characters should be asking, “Where are the gators?” It’s not the fault of Kaya Scodelario (who is very good) and Barry Pepper, as the daughter and father, that they’re shackled to middling dialogue and an unnecessary backstory; they rise to the occasion when they need to, which is to say, when they’re fighting off gators. The characters, who might as well be named “Meat 1” and “Meat 2,” share screen-time with a rag-tag group of Floridian looters and evacuation specialists — you can imagine how well they fare — but 90 percent of the action is centered on the daughter and father. Even if what they’re saying isn’t particularly interesting, the tight focus keeps you invested. Certainly more than when ALL of Boston was under attack in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and I felt nothing.
3. Much ado was made about the three hours-plus runtime for Avengers: Endgame, but it was an overblown “controversy,” as if the third highest-grossing movie ever also wasn’t over three hours. (Gone With the Wind, which holds the adjusted-for-inflation crown, is nearly four hours if you include the intermission.) That being said, sometimes it’s nice to see a movie that’s not triple-digit minutes long. Crawl is a tight 87 minutes — even shorter if you leave before you learn who the Best Boy was, which you shouldn’t because “See You Later, Alligator” by Bill Haley & His Comets plays over the end credits. That’s as dumb-clever as The Meg ending with a “Fin” title card, except Crawl is actually good.
4. Crawl didn’t come with a spoiler warning (it didn’t even screen for critics), and there’s no third-act twists or post-credits scene. It’s a simple, nasty, effective crowd-pleasing B-movie that doesn’t skimp on the gore or dark humor and will play even better once it’s released on digital, where it’s easier to wait out the human drama before returning to the gator action. I haven’t seen The Lion King yet, but I can guarantee Crawl is the best animal movie of the month.
5. There’s a dog. It’s a good dog. I thought this necessary to mention.