Since climate change came into the picture as a global crisis, there have been at least two distinct waves of climate disaster films. The first was generated by the prospect of 2012, the year of apocalyptic destruction in the Mayan calendar, and focused upon climate change as a widescreen spectacle, and a way of reviving waning interest in the multiplex as digital streaming started to corner the market. In fact, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, climate change films were one of the mainstays of the multiplex, to the point where cinematic longevity often seemed to depend upon spectacles of global destruction. As a result, climate change films often felt like they were about recording the finitude of cinema as much as the finitude of the planet, a contradiction that became even more pronounced once the Marvel Cinematic Universe took over as the multiplex staple. Whereas climate change films presented spectacles of planetary destruction as the only viable future for cinema, the MCU went one step further, outlining a blueprint for saving cinema that would depend upon subsuming all cinematic history and tradition to its own vision and culture, thereby destroying all cinema outside of its own purview in the process. In effect, the MCU would supplant cinema, and turn that supplanting into the only remaining viable spectacle.
For that reason, the second wave of climate change films, which tend to be local and small-scale in nature, often feel like a riposte to the MCU as much as to the widescreen spectacles of the late 2000s and early 2010s. These films often eschew any sense that climate change can be appreciated or represented in its totality, instead presenting it as what Timothy Morton describes as a hyperobject – an entity that is transhuman, and that defies being properly processed from any individual or even collective human viewpoint. Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, and directed by Alexandre Aja, Crawl is one of these small-scale climate change films, partly because it avoids looking at climate change head on, instead building it into a creature feature about a family hunted by a pack of wild alligators. Rather than present climate change as a privileged spectacle in and of itself, Aja instead integrates it into a genre film, suggesting that climate change is no longer plausible as a spectacle of sublime futurity, but has instead become embedded in the events of everyday life, even or especially when those events are schlocky and campy as in an unabashed B-film.
The plot of the film is fairly simple, and revolves around Haley Keller, a talented swimmer played by Kaya Scodelario, who decides to go home and check on her father Dave, played by Barry Pepper, after he fails to pick up his phone in the face of an impending hurricane. Home, for the Kellers, is Florida, and the first part of the film sees Haley leave her swimming class at the University of Florida, and travel to her father’s condo, and then to their old family house – against police instructions – as Hurricane Wendy escalates into a Category 5 storm. During these opening scenes, Aja takes us through one rain-beaten and windswept Florida landscape after another, as the CGI perpetually suggests a crisis that exceeds even a Category 5 hurricane. With vortical clouds descending from the sky, an eerie supernatural light cast over the land, and a general anticipation of mass destruction, the tone of the film is much closer to an apocalyptic exercise than a regular disaster film. As a result, the spectacle of the hurricane seems to be exhausted in this abbreviated opening act, suggesting that the remainder of the film must escalate to a more climactic and catastrophic prospect of environmental annihilation if Aja is going to continue ratcheting up the tension.
In other words, Crawl starts off as a natural disaster film in which the natural disaster fails to ramify as an isolated spectacle, incapable of sustaining the film in isolation from other forces. For a period, this shifts the film in the direction of slasher horror, especially when Haley arrives at her family home, where Aja adopts a slasher syntax, continually cutting between empty rooms and odd vantage points from outside, until the hurricane feels like a home invader who is biding their time and waiting for a moment to strike. During these scenes, the hurricane transforms the entire outside world into an alien invasive force, with one of the first and biggest jump scares coming when a tree is abruptly jammed through a downstairs window just as Haley is starting to settle into the house and get used to its emptiness. Yet while this turn towards slasher horror never entirely goes away, it is quickly complicated by another ingredient and genre turn, once Haley discovers Dave injured in the basement. She only has a short time to realise that he has been bitten before they are both cornered by a pair of enormous alligators that have taken refuge under the house, forcing them to fight for their lives in order to get back upstairs as the hurricane continues growing.
By the time we get to this basement scene, which forms an extended second act, the hurricane has been supplemented by both a slasher optic and a creature feature, imbuing the weather with a horrific potential that can’t be satisfied by any single outlet or spectacle. As a result, Crawl isn’t exactly a creature feature, or a slasher film, or a survival film, since the dynamism of the hurricane prevents it from ever settling on one horror register for too long. Unlike most creature features, the alligators appears in their entirety quite early on here, and aren’t presented as a typical predator. Whereas alligators might be totally in command in the wild, the alligators of Crawl are deaf, clumsy and awkward inside, described by Dave as “pea-brained lizards” that he and Haley can easily outwit, even if they can’t hope to rival them in terms of size and strength. Much of this sustained second act sees Haley and Dave moving through one crawl space after another in an attempt to elude the alligators, while also trying to make contact with emergency forces in the outside world.
During these scenes, the alligators produce a few jump scares, but are never really scary in the manner typical of a creature feature, especially given that Haley and Dave are both bitten, but both seem capable of dealing with their injuries fairly well. Instead, the alligators, like the slasher optic, are integrated into the rest of the hurricane, and become yet another facet of the hurricane’s increasing power, which turns into the real source of horror as the film proceeds. In particular, the rising water levels take on a really horrific quality, not only because they put a time limit on how long Haley and Dave can remain in the basement, but also because they reshape the crawl spaces quite quickly. With such a complex configuration of pipes and fixtures, rapidly rising water levels mean that safe places can become dangerous, and dangerous places can become safe, within a matter of minutes. More generally, the rapidly rising water levels give the alligators more mobility, since they are infinitely more comfortable in water than they are on land, and so grow more acclimatised to the basement as it transforms from a terrestrial to an aquatic environment.
More existentially and spectacularly, the rising water levels undercut the film’s escape narrative by transforming the world that Haley and Dave are trying to escape to while they are in the very process of escaping to it. By the time Haley finally make it “outside,” there is no meaningful difference between the basement and “outside,” since everything is underwater, including jetties, alligator warning signs, and other infrastructure that once signalled the difference between land and water. Similarly, by the time Haley gets Dave out of the basement, water has started to spill up from the basement into the house, signalling that it is only a matter of time before the house is as submerged as the basement is now submerged. Finally, by the time that Haley and Dave are ready to leave the house, their car has also been submerged, and there is no land left to shelter upon, meaning that they have to scramble up to the roof as the levees break, and the water rises even more exponentially.
This produces the final act of the film, which is as accelerated and intensified as the second act is drawn out and distended. Each time that Haley and Dave rise higher in the house, the water follows them, until they find themselves on the tip of the roof at the very moment the upper storey is submerged. At the very moment that they secure a boat, a fresh wave of water beats them back inside, where they have to negotiate their old family home as an entirely aquatic environment, disoriented and discomforted by all the familiar objects and fixtures floating beneath them. Finally, and at the very last minute, they’re rescued by an escape helicopter, at which point the very top of the house is submerged, and the whole neighborhood becomes an alligator-infested, aquatic environment, in which the predators have easy access to all the areas that you’d normally go to in order to escape or fight them.
In other words, the real horror of Crawl is the spectacle of rising water levels, and the prospect of water levels rising before we have time to properly prepare for them. By the film’s own logic, the helicopter that rescues Haley and Dave should also be consumed by the hurricane, and by the waters, since the film grimly points towards a future situation in which rising oceans finally exceed our capacity to process and comprehend their full implications. In that respect, the sustained second act, set in the basement, feels like a cipher for the present moment in climate catastrophe – the moment when all the conditions for future disaster have been set, by the tipping-point hasn’t quite yet been reached in terms of exponentially escalating disaster. By contrast, the third act of the film plays as a prophecy for the next generation of climate catastrophe, in which the intensification of climate change will rapidly move beyond and disregard any discourse that seeks to rationalise, contain or deny it. All the horror of the alligators, and the film’s slasher optics, ultimately serves to make this rising water ramify as viscerally and as violently as possible, which is perhaps why I found the sudden, abrupt ending so inspired, so disturbing, and so unsettling.
For while Aja may depict Haley and Dave getting in the helicopter, we never see them reach dry land, or even see dry land at any point during the entire film. Similarly, we never see their rescuers, or their reunion with the rest of their family. Early in the first act, we learn that Dave and Haley’s mother have recently separated, and that Haley is somewhat estranged from her sister, who urges her to go and check on her father in the first place. We also learn that Dave is only at their family home because he had reneged on an escrow, and couldn’t bear to sell a place that had so many memories and familial associations. Finally, Haley and Dave obviously have a complex and frustrated relationship, but none of these interpersonal situations are ever resolved or solved, since there is never the dry land or calm weather to allow them to be properly adumbrated. Instead, the film ends mid-catastrophe, or, rather, the film never extricates itself from the climate catastrophe, removing any sense of Hurricane Wendy as a discrete event, and instead embedding it within a broader sense of escalating planetary chaos. It is that planetary reach, which has become so much harder for a mainstream film to capture in the wake of the MCU, that makes Crawl so unsettling and prescient – a vision of the human body, crawling and abject, poised against the inevitable rise of water and devolution of climate in the very near future.