Header image: theatrical poster
Crocodiles and alligators are denizens of deep time. This idea is embedded in the sub-genre of creature feature movies about killer crocs and gators. Usually within the first half hour of runtime, the audience is reminded that these formidable reptiles are evolutionary champs. As one character in Rogue (2007) puts it regarding saltwater crocodiles in the Australian outback, “They’re pretty much living dinosaurs who have been perfecting their hunting skills over two hundred million years.” The most recent such film, Crawl (July 2019), frontloaded this info-dumping to pre-release marketing, posting ominous open-jawed images with captions that read “Think you can survive them? So did the dinosaurs” and “They were here first.” Even NBC’s television show The Office recognizes this pattern when CEO uber-creep Robert California explains the perils of the state of Florida to a Pennsylvania paper salesman: “Florida is America’s basement. It’s wet, it’s filled with mold, the strange insects… alligators…alligators are dinosaurs, Dwight. You know that, right?” Crocs and gators are coming after us, it seems, and they have been coming for a long time. Or rather, they have always been coming. They were here first.
Because repeated reference to “movies about killer crocs and gators” will become tedious, we might welcome a more concise designation for this sub-genre. A splash of herpetology helps: all extant crocs and gators belong to the same evolutionary clade, or taxonomic group—the lamentably unpronounceable “Eusuchia” branch. Luckily, however, “Eusuchia” literally means “true crocodile.” Given this sound etymological backing, we are all but obligated to refer to these movies as “true croc” cinema.
As a nod to the ostensibly “true” scientism often peppered into these films, the label “true croc” also has the benefit of emphasizing the campy and contrived plotlines, which often make the story at hand feel like a load of croc(k). After all, there are only so many situations in which a gator or croc can pose an ongoing threat, and even when the required semi-aqueous and trapped conditions are met, the tension necessary for a full-length film must rely heavily on the dictates of “territorial hunting” (however hazily defined) or characters who repeatedly make poor decisions. (As Roger Ebert points out in his pan of Lake Placid (1999), a movie about a crocodile chowing down on folks in a Maine lake: they could have simply stopped going in the water.) But all this dubious fishiness as well as the hackneyed factishness shouldn’t keep us from recognizing true croc for what it provides: a fascinating referendum on fears and fantasized solutions in the Anthropocene.
True croc owes an obvious debt to the progenitor of all modern creature features. It was Chief Brody of Amity Island Police, after all, who in the first summer blockbuster shared with his wife the overwhelming archaic mystery of his dead-eyed enemy: “You know, Ellen, people don’t even know how old sharks are. And I mean if they live two, three thousand years. They don’t know!” This anomalous naturalness of the shark—a freakish longevity in defiance of science itself—accounts for why, according to Fredric Jameson, the meaning of Spielberg’s shark is precisely its absorption of all possible meanings. “As a symbolic vehicle,” Jameson explained in 1979, “the shark must be understood in terms of its essentially polysemous function rather than any particular content attributable to it by this or that spectator.” This polysemy functions to absorb the particular antagonisms of capitalism. In other words, the yawning abyss of the shark—metonymically signaled as jaws—is a vacuum that swallows and digests ideological conflict. Capitalism is made to seem natural, and any tension within this natural system is projected onto a single foe that we can—with a well-positioned oxygen tank—blow up. Or as Slavoj Žižek puts essentially the same point when referring to Jaws and fears of immigration, natural disasters, dangers to children, etc.: “The function of the shark is to unite all these fears so that we can trade, in a way, all these fears for one fear alone. In this way, our experience of reality gets much simpler.”
Is true croc merely a toothy continuation of this lineage? Yes and no. If we look past Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1977), which is arguably more in line with serial killer stylings, the genre of true croc begins with Alligator (1980), a blatant attempt to cash-in on the success of Jaws.1 Trading the New England-set Amity Island for Chicago, Alligator also sees a community terrorized by a fearsomely hungry foe. And like Jaws, Alligator maintains a reverence for the ancient animality of this predator: at one point, our protagonist wakes from a nightmare/flashback to see a giant lizard/dinosaur stomping through a scene on his television, a reference not only to the paleontological pedigree of gators but to the long history of visual media incorporating reptiles as scale-manipulated stand-ins for dinosaurs.2
But with Alligator as the birth of true croc, the genre actually sets itself apart from the wider world of creature features. The B-movie camp of Alligator never takes itself as seriously as Jaws, for one thing. But the most interesting dynamic differentiating true croc from the Jaws model is the way that this inaugural film tethers the fossil horror of the gator to civilization itself, thereby undermining any neat separation between nature and culture. This blending of boundaries accounts for the origin of the threatening gator, which has grown to unnatural size due to its feeding on experimental test animals dispatched illegally by a laboratory that is researching growth-inducing chemicals. Flushed down the toilet as a mere fingerling at the beginning of the film, the gator was expelled from human society only to later resurface, mutated by pharmaceutical hubris. Inspired loosely by long-standing urban legends about abandoned pet gators thriving in city sewers, Alligator is fundamentally about the uncanny return of our refuse.3 Whereas the shark of Jaws is “nature” personified—or Nature as the universalized mystification of human woes—true croc in the tradition of Alligator posits a collapse, or collision, of what appeared to be separate spheres. Such a drama of collision still attempts to make reality simpler, as Žižek explains of Jaws. But the tensions driving true croc remain stubbornly present, refusing to be flushed away for good. What else would we expect from monsters marauding through the rising waters of the Anthropocene?
Obviously, Alligator anticipates the discourse of the Anthropocene if not the actual human practices that have cumulatively contributed to global warming. More recent true croc films, however, have pitted humans against crocs and gators in collisions that explicitly invoke the fault lines of environmental crisis. Rogue (2007) and Black Water (2007) downplay the genre’s camp to provide white-knuckle tension—simple stories of surviving more-or-less realistic attacks in the wild. Both plots revolve around encounters with crocodiles that stem from the encroachments of eco-tourism: vacationing visitors invade habitats that seem to be changing in response to volatile climate patterns. More convoluted in its relation to global warming-era strife is Primeval (2007), which sees a team attempt to trap a man-eating crocodile as they become increasingly caught in the crossfire of civil war in Burundi. Here the tension inheres not only between humans and nature as bound up in the crocodile but also in the intra-human violence that stems at least in part from a region whose economy is stunted by depleted natural resources and foreign expropriation.4 But of all these movies, the most recent, Crawl, is the most instructive of true croc in relation to climate change. Perhaps the most total embodiment of the genre, Crawl merits extended attention.
With the previously-mentioned marketing used to establish the archaic dread of the animal threat in Crawl, the plot itself is first initiated by a category five hurricane. The importance of the storm is actually clearest in the film’s tell-all trailer, which begins with satellite imagery and voiceover of a government-issued evacuation order for Florida. Iconic if not outright cliché, the swirling eye of the storm as seen from space recalls any number of cli fi and disaster films that make extreme weather events—whether believable or not—the primary antagonist (see Figure 1). But where these films are often directly linked to global warming and—in some cases—to botched attempts to out-engineer planetary crisis (see:Geostorm ), Crawl instrumentalizes the storm as a means to another, more manageable end. The storm ushers in the usual destruction, sure, but it is most significant as a conduit for ancient, murderous reptiles. The implication is that the cataclysmic weather associated with climate change need only concern us to the extent that it facilitates the long-building bloodlust of dinosaur slayers. Such a conceit replaces real and pressing environmental concerns with imagined terror, focusing attention not on the massive storm surge itself but on the mythically imbued monster riding the wave.
As in Jaws, this displacement aims at cathartic relief. Shifting focus from climate change to gators allows for the possibility of an actual victory, satisfying and reassuring. This trajectory is set from the first scene of the film, which opens with our protagonist, Haley, competing in a race as part of the University of Florida swim team. Dipping through the pool, the camera follows her sprinting freestyle stroke, prodding us to marvel at the power and professionalized training that allows this human being to speed along as if water were her natural habitat. She is, after all, a “Gator” by virtue of being on this particular university’s swim team.
From the beginning, then, we’re made to see an equality if not an equivalence between Haley and the villains she will later face. She is like them: an even match. This likeness is made painfully obvious when we learn that Haley’s semi-estranged father, who was once her swim coach, likes to encourage her to work harder by calling her an “apex predator.” At first this nickname seems a bit odd and offensively on the nose (on the snout?). Yet there’s an underlying intelligence at work here. Hokey as it is—and the tortured father-daughter dialogue is the worst part of the movie—the nickname does reinforce that the duo are Florida folk through and through. They are aware of the deathtrap that is their state, and so it makes a certain characterological sense that Haley, a competitive swimmer, would aspire to the pitiless propulsion of a gator, a creature that she’s likely been trained to respect and avoid even as she appreciates its power. This familiarity explains why neither Haley nor her father seem particularly surprised when they become trapped in the basement of their family home by a pair of massive gators. They’re not pleased about being trapped, of course. But this is Florida. Threat happens.
With Haley so anointed an “apex predator,” it is wholly unsurprising that she survives the film and that, more specifically, she at one point exclaims her nickname aloud after out-swimming a couple of alligators to reach a boat. (Yes, she outswims alligators even though, as my sister pointed out after we left the theater, she actually lost the race at the beginning of the film to, you know, another human swimmer.) This small victory of reaching the boat and other moments of escape from snapping jaws confirm that Haley has been preparing all along to meet this challenge; indeed, several underwater shots from a gator perspective recall the opening scene in the university pool, where Haley was similarly pursued by a camera view diving after her heels. With such visual foreshadowing established, how could she not outswim those gators? Still, it is more surprising that Haley’s father and even the family pet also survive to the end (dogs fare better here than in Jaws). The movie concludes abruptly with Haley flashing a signal flare at a rescue helicopter that is lowering its basket to scoop up the trio. All things considered, the three are in better shape than their multiple gator encounters would seem to allow.
So: Crawl ends with triumph over the monsters that have taken the place of climate change. Jaws-like, we can breathe easier. And yet there’s an important difference. These characters don’t so much defeat the alligators as they escape them. The last scene sees them rescued from the roof of their otherwise submerged family home, a home where Haley’s growing-up is literally marked in pencil along a doorframe that is now underwater (visible here). They flee, resigning their home. This departure affects the father most. He was unwilling to sell the house, we learn, because of sentimental attachment; though nobody has lived there for some time, he can’t let it go. But Haley reminds him that home is where the heart is, or something like that. And so they leave, spirited away by the helicopter—we assume—in the moments after the film ends. Not an outright triumph, then, but at least the departure shows a mature strength and fortitude. They did decide to leave, after all.
But Haley’s heartwarming speech notwithstanding, the movie actually suggests that they don’t have a choice. Or put differently, the movie insists that they can’t choose to leave their home because even before the storm hits, the home is no longer theirs to leave. The trailer for Crawl makes it seem like alligators invade the house when the storm hits, which may be true of at least some of the specimens that attack throughout. But a fascinating scene midway through the movie itself (and shown briefly in the trailer) suggests that the alligators have been there for some time—been there “first,” to recall the movie’s social media tagline.
While attempting to find an exit from the flooding basement, Haley swim-walks (i.e., crawls) her way to a distant corner. She brings her hand up from the water to reveal a hatched alligator egg. The next moment shows dozens, perhaps hundreds of eggs. She’s stumbled into a nest, and she soon discovers floating corpses, animal and human, the remnants of a meal being saved, perhaps, for the newly hatched gators. An eerie green tone pervades the space, the combination of verdant swamp life and chemical discoloration. One brief but startling shot actually submerges in the water to show a baby alligator emerging from its egg. This departure from Haley is surreal, as if offering a glimpse into a world wholly alien to the urgent concerns of the film’s protagonist. We’re suspended for just a moment with another mode of life—one that is old, resilient, and fundamentally inhuman. Soon enough we’re back above water, with Haley and her need to survive. But the wriggling alligator is still there, newborn even if out of view.
The reference to Jurassic Park is obvious enough: life will find a way (see Figure 2 below). But situated against the rest of Crawl, the message of this alligator nest is more troubling. Life, reptilian life, has found a way, and it has done so while escaping the attention of Haley and her father in the basement of their home, building a sickly green world of decaying human flesh and bursting fecundity. The gators didn’t invade Haley’s home during the storm. Instead, they are claiming the home that, neglected by humans, has already become their own.
One Florida native has recently detailed a number of inaccuracies in Crawl, some more egregious than others. What Sezin Koehler finds most annoying is the film’s mistaken understanding of homebuilding in her state: “And now we need to talk about that damned basement in Crawl, the one upon which the name of the film and the entire narrative structure is based: There. Are. No. Basements. In. Florida.” But if we recall Robert California’s notion from The Office that “Florida is America’s basement,” perhaps the point is that this completely inaccurate basement-cum-alligator sanctuary is flourishing in the depths of a collective (national) unconscious. In this sense, the conspicuously wrong basement (or crawlspace) is continuous with the sewer of Alligator, a place ours but neglectfully out of sight, taken over by insurgent life from below. Calling back to the true croc genre originator, then, Crawl must invent the possibility of a Florida basement and fill it with alligators to reveal, even if unwittingly, what is hidden from Haley as well as from us more generally—namely, that “home” increasingly means a warm, watery, and dangerous world, fit more for reptiles than humans.
I hasten to note that actual reptiles are not in fact poised to thrive under the aegis of climate change. More sensitive than humans to fragile ecosystems, they like most other organisms are suffering for our sins. And yet intuitively, the tumultuous conditions overtaking earth do seem like they would accommodate crocs and gators. Imagining the posthuman flourishing of these creatures therefore makes suitable mythic and narrative—if not zoological—sense. This is particularly the case in true croc, where, as we have seen, insistence on the ancientness of the reptiles grants them an extinction-proof durability that seems to bookend humanity’s petty project. They were here before us, and as the all but hallucinated basement of Crawl suggests, they have moved back in with force.
Crocs and gators are therefore apt harbingers of repercussion, the unwelcome announcement that our time is up. Though admittedly a stretch as an example of true croc, we might recall “Tick-Tock the Croc,” the crocodile nemesis of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Because of ingesting a clock, she emits a ticking noise when stalking her prey. If Peter Pan himself is youthfulness embodied, the croc is Hook’s past catching up with him. Having swallowed the pirate’s hand along with the clock, Tick-Tock gains her name and grants Hook his in a moment of dismembering violence that ties their fates together. Like Tick-Tock, the monsters of true croc are the unyielding time-keepers of a self-initiated extinction. They were here before us, and they are coming after us—after us in pursuit, but also in perpetuity.
Is being helicopter-lifted from your home a victory if your home is no longer your own? More to the point, what do we do when the helicopter, like Noah’s dove, has no place to land? When waters don’t recede, will leaving the roof—leaving home—mean leaving the planet? And what about those who don’t make it to the roof, or who don’t have a helicopter ready to scoop them up? These are the questions that surface in true croc, asked of us in the uncomfortable moments when we realize that we can’t outswim the foe.
- In Eaten Alive (1977), unwitting Texas hotel guests are slain by a deranged murderer who uses his pet Nile crocodile to kill and dispose of evidence. Though also made in the prodigious wake of Jaws (as the movie trailer verbalizes immediately), Eaten Alive wields its croc as a weapon in the hands of the human killer, thereby suturing the movie to the southern gothic formula that Hooper had executed to such perfection in his earlier Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
- Alligator is available in full on youtube; the post-nightmare dinosaur-lizard stomps into view at 1:08:00.
- For a lesser-seen true croc movie that combines the return of the repressed element of Alligator with the serial killer thrust of Eaten Alive, see The Hatching (2016).
- Primeval is particularly tantalizing as an entry in the true croc canon because the film’s marketing personifies the crocodile—which is based on the real-life man-eater crocodile known as “Gustave”—as a conventional true crime villain. The trailer begins with voiceover and text: “In one of the most remote locations on earth, lives the world’s most prolific serial killer.” The jig is up fairly quickly in the film itself when the identity of the “serial killer” becomes obvious if it wasn’t from the get-go. But the decision to fictionalize an account of Gustave as if a human psychopath is intriguing, to say the least. And while Primeval is the most direct movie about Gustave, the fact that both Rogue and Black Water were also released in 2007 points to the influence of the PBS-aired documentary on Gustave, Capturing the Killer Croc (2004), which provides Primeval with most of its narrative skeleton (sans guerilla warfare).