Today’s genre filmmakers seem to approach filmmaking as if they’re making a stew. Despite the freedom the science-fiction, action and horror genres give them, they continually return to the well of what’s been successful, borrowing recognizable concepts and ideas to work as a shorthand: you know how time travel works in “Back To The Future,” so we don’t much have to explain it. You know the dynamic involved in a last-man-standing scenario, so we won’t bother you with the details, you own all the corresponding DVDs. And another one of those greatest hits packages arrives in the form of Australian thriller “Crawlspace,” featuring enough popular sci-fi tropes to please those looking for something more than a bit familiar.
In this claustrophobic (read: low-budget) thriller, a group of Aussie commandos infiltrate a military compound where a series of experiments have gone awry. Their orders are to find those in charge of a top secret military experiment and remove them from the situation, as unspecified chaos reigns, threatening the stability of the territory. Upon landing and immediately secluding themselves in a series of spacious air ducts, they soon learn that there are either monsters afoot (possibly overgrown gorillas?) or a substance released into the air causing hallucinations. Probably both.
“Crawlspace” gains whatever mileage it can by constantly presenting new problems and casting doubt as to their validity. Who is to be trusted? This question is rendered all the more complex by the beautiful Eve (Amber Clayton), a test subject from the labs who can read minds and who immediately begins to share what secrets the crew is hiding from each other. Complicating matters (tropes on tropes on tropes on tropes) is the fact that Eve’s an amnesiac, though she appears to have military training, and bears a very strong resemblance to a soldier’s dead wife.
From this point, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from the institute’s cavernous hallways, and eventually the musty laboratories, where a few select test videos will begin to reveal the truth, or a variation of such. Director/screenwriter Justin Dix has a promising career in television based on the strength of this film: he’s a clear-headed storyteller who provides more-than-adequate coverage for dialogue scenes, and he shows a skill in minimizing the fact that the picture is operating on a tiny budget by utilizing practical in-camera effects for much of the action – you get the vibe that were this made in 1998, Jan De Bont would have needed an $80 million budget to tell this story. But Dix mixes and matches his story pieces so frequently that you begin to lose sight of why the answers would be desirable. A few curveballs thrown in the midst of a story is not going to make it interesting, and the audience won’t suddenly be hungrier for a resolution.
Dix does get the most out of what was probably a leftover set from “Farscape” or “Stargate SG-1,” however. It wouldn’t surprise to learn that trickery was involved to keep redecorating the same hallway, such is the nature of low-budget affairs, but the location constantly feels fresh and unfamiliar. And he benefits greatly from the magnetic presence of Clayton, who drives the narrative with her own hesitation in revealing what she knows, given that she’s aware of another popular genre invention, the “invented memories.” Throughout the picture, you can see an uncertain Eve trying on many different faces, struggling within a conventional sci-fi actioner (with heavy dollops of “Aliens”) to re-assemble the pieces of what she once was. Even when the film devolves into second-half mysteries and second-guessing that stuff like “Resident Evil” glosses over, you never tire of watching her as a performer. [C]