WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Crawl, in theaters now.
When it comes to man versus monster stories, Jaws is the benchmark to which a lot of filmmakers. The beloved '70s franchise wasn't just a part of Steven Spielberg's brand, it laid a template for cerebral animals hunting mankind in a more artsy manner than, say, the Godzilla movies from Toho, which focused on wanton chaos and destruction.
Jaws has inspired a lot of filmmakers to cleverly hide or tease their creatures, saving up for a huge finale where all hell breaks loose. But for those who expected the same formula for Crawl, think again. Director Alexandre Aja takes his alligator movie well out of the shadow of Jaws by giving us a gator fest right off the bat, leaving them as in-your-face villains from start to finish.
Now, we know humanity always beats nature for whatever reason. The old adage of "only the strong survive" apparently only counts for mankind. Even the protagonist of the film, Haley (Kaya Scodelario), literally adopts this mantra and yells it to the animals as she tries to get her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) and their dog Sugar to safety when their Florida home comes under water and under the threat of several hungry gators. But what separates these movies from Jaws is how long it takes to actually paint the beasts as savage hunters, showing their presence as early as possible and in a most visible manner. While movies like The Meg do so about halfway through, Aja smartly has the creatures killing from the get-go, leaving you filled with tension and a sense of dread throughout -- no surprise given he's into high-octane action early on like in The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D.
His jump-scares register in a much more impactful manner than Jaws, though, because within Haley's first visit to her basement, she finds Dave bitten and meets an alligator face-to-face. There's no lurking in the shadows, swimming around the house or hiding. The alligator attempts to roll with her, made all the more intense by Dave being unconscious and bitten, too. And this is how the film goes on for 90 minutes: a cat-and-mouse affair with the animals (for effect, they're somehow all over 12 feet long and move at breakneck speeds across land and through water) sneaking, playing mind games.
The fact there's a couple of them in the crawl space beneath the home trapping the humans, and also, seeing as outside is flooding, we've got about a dozen more outdoors killing anyone who dares come by the house. The danger's always in the vicinity. When the levees break and water gushes into the home with these creatures like a mini-tsunami, Crawl offers a constant adrenaline rush, never letting up.
Also, having these killers hunting in packs like wild hyenas, strategically working as a unit, is all the more impressive with CGI that feels like it's from a National Geographic film. To top it off, the very premise of getting stuck in a house and a small town in a flood with no escape really makes for an uncomfortable and claustrophobic experience. This adds a different kind of tension unlike the other shark or snake movies where the protagonists are on land or in open water or can escape to higher ground in a swamp.
Crawl sprints at a relentless pace throughout, helping differentiate it from Jaws. Aja keeps his creatures in such close proximity, giving no quarter. It isn't subtle or stealthy, but ultimately, it's an approach which induces fear in a much more monstrous manner. And in that sense, Aja accomplishes the effect Jaws had on beachgoers, because by the time Crawl ends, it'll leave you reluctant to go near swamps, rivers or the petting zoos ever again.
Crawl, written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen and produced by Sam Raimi, is directed by Alexandre Aja. It stars Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper and Ross Anderson, and is in theaters now.