It doesn’t take long for the “when animals attack” thriller “Crawl” to give the audience what it paid for. In the opening minutes, University of Florida swim team star Haley Keller (played by Kaya Scodelario) drives back to her hometown in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane to check in on her worryingly incommunicado dad, Dave (Barry Pepper). Fairly quickly, she finds him unconscious in the crawlspace under their family home … with deep claw marks across his torso, and a giant alligator slithering nearby.
What follows is an escalating version of a survivalist creature-feature: like “The Shallows” or “Tremors,” but amplified. It turns out there isn’t just one humongous alligator patrolling the rising waters around the Keller house; there’s a whole congregation. Also, the storm is rapidly flooding the crawlspace, and a nearby levee is buckling.
While Haley and Dave are evading snapping reptiles — and tending to an almost preposterous series of flesh wounds and snapped limbs — they’re aware that even if they can survive the man-eaters, they’ll still have to make it through a freakin’ hurricane.
The pileup of crises proves to be a bit more than director Alexandre Aja and screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen can handle. “Crawl” is action-packed, with impressive special effects and some jaw-dropping images of mayhem and destruction. But a movie like this demands more storytelling discipline and logistical control than these filmmakers can manage.
Pepper and Scodelario are both very good, playing a tough-love father and his resentful daughter. But their dysfunctional family drama isn’t all that essential, and certainly isn’t important enough to merit multiple digressive heart-to-heart talks about their broken relationship — especially not in the middle of an all-out assault by hurricane gators.
While Aja has some experience with these kinds of movies (having helmed the much more tongue-in-cheek “Piranha 3D”), he has some difficulty with the one thing that’s most important about this kind of story: visual coherence. The viewer needs to know at all times exactly where the heroes are, where their attackers could be, and what resources each side has at its disposal. In “Crawl,” it’s often so dark and chaotic that it’s hard to tell when the Kellers have strayed too far.
That said, Aja and his effects team do a remarkable job with the hurricane threat, capturing the way that rushing floods and strong winds can turn the warmth and comfort of home into a dangerous pile of free-floating debris. When it’s really working — which is only about half the time — “Crawl” is an efficient and clever environmental adventure picture, set in a nice old house where suddenly nothing is safe. It has enough good jolts that it’s disappointing when the choreography gets sloppy.
Ultimately, “Crawl” is nerve-racking enough that it doesn’t need all the fillips and underscoring that Aja and the Rasmussens add. Who needs daddy issues when there are killer beasties and walls of water closing in? What’s a better metaphor for a broken home than a literally broken home?
Rated: R, for bloody creature violence, and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: In general release