It’s been an underwhelming season of massiveness at the movies. We’re now past the summer movie season’s halfway point, and though it’s had its highlights, it now looks likely to be remembered as one best forgotten, a year defined by disappointment and franchise fatigue. If we mark its kickoff with Avengers: Endgame (way back in late April), it’s been a summer in which Marvel, Pixar, and John Wick have remained safe bets but other brand names have taken on sour connotations. Anyone up for more X-Men movies after Dark Phoenix? In the mood for another Shaft? Excited to discover that the Men in Black not only police aliens on Earth but also have offices in Europe? If summer 2019 has a signature film, it’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which offered giant monsters, global stakes, and images of a major American city getting reduced to rubble—yet, less than two months after its release, who remembers it? Sometimes operating at maximum volume just means making a lot of noise. It also opens up the opportunity for others to be heard once that noise dies down.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Crawl, which pits a college student and her father against a bunch of alligators as a hurricane approaches their family’s Florida home, isn’t a great movie, but greatness is beside the point. It’s not even a particularly daring movie, at least in concept. Every summer now seems to have a humanity vs. beasts slot, one filled in recent years by The Shallows (2016), 47 Meters Down (2017), and The Meg (2018). Directed by Alexandre Aja from a script by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, Crawl’s plot most closely resembles The Shallows, in which Blake Lively plays a woman forced to use little but her wits to survive against a hungry shark.
Crawl’s virtues, however, remain formidable: It’s fast, efficient, crisply directed, and delivers on the promised alligator thrills. In another year, that might be worth a polite nod. This year, however, those B-movie values feel especially refreshing, and illuminating too. Aja—a French director who broke through with the nastily effective High Tension and whose American work has ranged from a pretty good remake of The Hills Have Eyes to the goofily entertaining Piranha 3D—keeps the focus tight on a single question: How will our heroes fend off alligators and escape from a rapidly flooding house? In doing so, he makes it easier to care about the fate of two people than other movies do the fate of an entire city. (Sorry, Boston. Hope you recover from Godzilla soon.)
A dusting of subtext doesn’t hurt. Kaya Scodelario stars as Haley, a swim team star (this detail will unsurprisingly prove relevant) who’s concerned about her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), as a hurricane nears her hometown. On the outs, they haven’t spoken in a while, but that doesn’t slow her down. Flouting a roadblock, she heads into the storm and eventually to the home Dave hasn’t been able to bring himself to sell after his divorce from Haley’s mom. Haley finds him in the basement, unconscious and missing a chunk of flesh from his shoulder thanks to one of the two alligators that have taken up residence in their basement. To save his life, and repair their relationship, Haley will have to find a way to get him out of the place he can’t leave behind.
And that’s essentially the whole movie, one that doesn’t waste much of its 88-minute running time. There’s no witty banter, no stars shoehorned in for marquee value, no images that look like they were created for an FX demo reel. Instead, Crawl keeps the emphasis on clean, coherent action scenes. Aja establishes the house, the space around it, and the elements keeping Haley and her dad from escaping, and lets the situation play out against the moody lighting of a storm-blackened sky. Even the best of this year’s blockbusters could take some cues from Crawl. Spider-Man: Far From Home, for all its many charms, lights the great cities of Europe with the indifference of a selfie and struggles to create a truly memorable action scene.
Summer will always be dominated by big movies, but that doesn’t mean the little ones can’t show the way. Lacking big-name stars and a huge special effects budget, Crawl has to get by on, well, filmmaking and on understanding what job it has to do and how to get it done. It’s evidence that our A-movies could benefit from an infusion of B-movie values, a problem only the John Wick series seems to have taken seriously before now. But maybe the leaden summer of 2019 will mark the point others notice it too. Crawl would look pretty good in just about any season. In this one it positively glows.