Dropped into the never-ending deluge of films that feature supernatural evil, grandiose comic-book villainy, or mad slashers who might as well be supernatural, “Crawl” devotes itself to a force of terror so stubbornly of this earth that it may strike Saturday-night audiences as faintly exotic. The movie, a scaled-down and waterlogged thriller, is built around a deadly attack of alligators — big, long wriggly ones that emerge during a category-five hurricane in southwest Florida. The director, Alexandre Aja (“High Tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes”), brings the critters to life through a combination of digital imagery, scale models, and (maybe) real-life alligators, all which add up to an impressively believable image of natural-born chomping fear. These gators look like real gators just as much as the current Godzilla looks not like a rubbery special effect but like an actual…uh, Godzilla.
Over the decades, there have been a handful of cheap scare flicks about alligators, notably “Alligator,” a 1979 B-movie written by John Sayles back in those pre-indie-revolution days when a horror movie written by John Sayles carried the mystique of pulp touched by a poet. The difference between then and now is that in the old days, when you made a disaster thriller about people trying to escape the wrath of nature, the people, sketchy as they may have been, were still front and center. (That’s why “Alligator” could actually be talked about in terms of its script.)
Today, even in a back-to-basics movie like this one, it’s the logistics that are front and center: the fancy dank pea-soup lighting, the swirling CGI storm, the way that the camera pushes into every nook and cranny of the film’s claustrophobic setting — an ultra-gunky flooded basement, where Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario), a competitive swimmer at the University of Florida, and her estranged father, Dave (Barry Pepper), find themselves trying to escape a pair of 20-foot-long scaly-skinned reptile carnivores who came in through the drain pipe and have a way of swimming at eye level right at the camera. “Crawl” has no pretense and not very much range; it’s “Jaws” set in an old dark house.
When Haley first shows up to rescue her dad (she doesn’t know there are alligators there — she just thinks he’s caught in the storm), she finds him, with a torn leg and a bite out of his shoulder, in a corner of the basement that’s walled off from the rest of it by several large horizontal pipes. She is soon clustered in there along with him, and their safest option would probably be to just stay there. Then, however, there wouldn’t be a movie. So Haley not only has to go out and grab the cell phone that’s lying there, she has to try and call 911 before swimming back to safety (even though that’s only six feet away).
Yet it would be foolish to nitpick a movie like “Crawl” on the basis of plausibility; the film’s grimy watchable “funhouse” semi-monotony is reason enough. There are moments, it’s true, when you’ll squirm in your seat at the vicarious prospect of being eaten alive. But given the tiny number of major characters, there are one too many scenes in which Haley, played by Kaya Scoledario with a wide-eyed pluck that suggests Jessica Harper crossed with Emma Stone, swims out into the murk, just beyond the snapping jaws of death, and sometimes finds one of her limbs momentarily caught in a gator’s mouth, but always manages to escape with body and soul intact.
At one point, several unsympathetic characters show up at the store across the street (it’s all a connected landscape because of the stormy flood), and they might as well be wearing signs that read “Fresh Meat.” That’s true, as well, when a sympathetic character shows up. (He gets torn apart by about five alligators.) But “Crawl,” you must understand, is truly dedicated to the therapeutic potential of battling alligators in healing the relationship between a divorced dad and the daughter he used to coach at swim meets. They rediscover their bond as the water level rises, pushing them up into the house and, finally, out onto its roof.
We seem to be in the midst of a “Jaws” redux moment. That movie, of course, has never gone away. But last summer’s “The Meg” demonstrated that even a shamelessly literal and not-very-suspenseful re-assemblage of “Jaws” tricks could convince audiences they were having a good enough time, and next month will give us the “47 Meters Down” sequel “Uncaged.” “Crawl” attaches itself to this trend like a barnacle with teeth. At the box office, it will likely offer up about one weekend’s worth of nostalgia, and with the jaunty bluster of Bill Haley & His Comets’ version of “See You Later, Alligator” playing over the closing credits, it can leave audiences convinced that a movie this hokey-primitive in its appeal must be a joke that they’re in on. But no, there’s isn’t any joke, at least not one that leaves bite marks.