From Jaws to Crawl: Everyone Loves a Nail-Biting Man vs Animal Movie

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From Jaws to Crawl: Everyone Loves a Nail-Biting Man vs Animal Movie

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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n unexpected highlight of the entire P Chidambaram arrest saga has been Shashi Tharoor coming out in support of his party colleague, saying that until PC’s innocence was proven, he would have to “allow malicious minds their schadenfreude”. It was a classic Tharoorism, but while some people might derive schadenfreude from the misfortune of corrupt politicians, there are others among us who find it in simpler places, like a movie hall. The release of Crawl, a story set in a flooded city during a hurricane, sees the protagonists striving to survive a hostile world of rising water, teeming with hungry alligators. And watching people desperately try to avoid becoming a hungry predator’s dinner might be the purest form of schadenfreude out there.

Having humans as a main course for a man-eating critter is a time-honoured cinematic tradition, which over the years, has also proved to be extremely malleable. For instance, Crawl promises to be a taut, fast-paced thriller. But the creature feature genre has also accommodated films as diverse as Black Water, an Australian horror film that creates tension as well as the critically acclaimed The Babadook, and also purely silly, campy fluff like the Piranha and Sharknado franchises. It’s a genre that has something for everyone, from the serious critic looking to ruminate on the human condition to the escapist thrill-seeker who just wants an excuse to eat popcorn while watching other people get eaten.

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Crawl separates itself from the man vs animal films that preceded it – the dangers are no longer symbols of nature’s untamed majesty, but now represent the consequences of our own actions.

Ghost House Pictures

At the heart of this genre’s curiously universal appeal is its simplicity. These movies are like Man vs Wild on steroids, where man always wins against overwhelming odds and audiences can leave the theatre happy, their schadenfreude sublimating into catharsis. Before every movie featured costumed superheroes, the creature feature reached its crowd-pleasing zenith with 1997’s Anaconda, the perfect late ’90s blockbuster recipe of big-name stars (Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Owen Wilson, and Ice Cube), snappy one-liners, pulsating action scenes, and cutting-edge (for the time) special effects, which made the titular snake seem more terrifying and malevolent than it ever is in the wild. The ravenous creatures hunting us are stand-ins for the inscrutability of nature itself, and its propensity to turn frighteningly hostile if its delicate balance is upset.

We are closer today to irreversibly upsetting that balance than ever before. As Crawl hits screens, a spate of fires continue to burn across the anaconda’s home, the Amazon rainforest, threatening to send the green lungs of this planet up in smoke, along with our hopes of a habitable planet. Halfway across the world, fires of a similar scale are also raging across Siberian forests. As these blazes strip away Earth’s green cover, they hasten the process of climate change, which will cause ocean levels to rise and freak weather events to become more frequent.

But the release of Crawl proves that even as our relationship with nature evolves, the lure of a creature feature remains as strong as ever.

In Crawl, it is a Category 5 Hurricane – exactly the kind of aberrant weather climate change will foster – that provides the catalyst for the movie’s plot. The alligators that threaten our heroes then become the embodiment of climate change’s destructive symptoms. Crucially, it is this aspect of Crawl that separates it from the man vs animal films that preceded it – the dangers are no longer symbols of nature’s untamed majesty, but now represent the consequences of our own actions.

Earlier films in the genre that were successful, portrayed nature as something that could not effectively be controlled, despite humanity’s technological advancements. Perhaps the greatest creature feature of all time, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, summed up this attitude succinctly in one immortal line of dialogue: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The great white shark that terrorised beachgoers in 1975 was presented as such an implacable foe that even the three experts dispatched to hunt it were unsure of their ability to get the job done. It was a time before climate change had become part of our daily conversations. We hadn’t yet seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, or the heart-breaking video of the starving polar bear digging through trash because his Arctic home was melting, or realised that the Amazon rainforest, one of the planet’s greatest biodiversity hotspots, was aflame. And so, the shark, and nature itself, was something we had to strive against to survive. At its heart, Jaws is a testament to the ingenuity of humanity and how it bent nature to its will.

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Jaws is a testament to the ingenuity of humanity and how it bent nature to its will.

Universal Pictures

Today, we are witnessing the fallout of that victory. As the adverse effects of humankind’s actions on the environment (and as a result, our future) become clearer, nature’s wrath is no longer the enemy; rather, it is our own hubris. But the release of Crawl proves that even as our relationship with nature evolves, the lure of a creature feature remains as strong as ever. As long as studios keep making these movies, we’ll keep watching them. Until the water levels rise for real and we’re eaten by a shark or crocodile on our way to buy groceries, that is.

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