Paranoia, people scared they’ll fall deathly sick, the clash between financial profit and common sense – no I’m not describing living through a Coronavirus outbreak but rather Sea Fever, the Irish sci-fi horror from writer-director Neasa Hardiman (Happy Valley, Jessica Jones).
Hermione Corfield stars as Siobhan, a neurodivergent young woman studying marine biology. She’s assigned to venture onto a cash strapped commercial fishing boat sailing off the Irish west coast. Captained by married couple Freya and Gerard (Connie Nielsen and Dougray Scott), Siobhan’s job is to photograph their catch for abnormalities.
From the outset tension is high. Siobhan’s introverted nature rubs awkwardly with the boat’s diverse group of crew members, including Syrian refugee and engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) and older Irish cook Ciara (the great Olwen Fouéré). Her red hair, meanwhile, is perceived as a bad omen by the superstitious captains. Things go from bad to worse, however, when Gerard due to money problems sails into forbidden waters to get a bigger catch. There, the crew encounter something unprecedented and dangerous.
Sea Fever follows the blueprint of many great sci-fi horrors including Alien, The Thing and most recently Annihilation. This is as it centres on a ragtag group of characters in a confined setting and how they deal with a monstrous threat. While this does leave the film feeling somewhat over familiar, within the framework of this type of story Hardiman makes some subtle changes and tackles a few unique themes.
The film is partly about the clash between tradition and modernity. Many of the crew aboard The Niamh – itself named after a figure from Celtic mythology believed to be the daughter of a sea god – traffic in sailor superstitions and myths. In some respects, these ancient beliefs are useful. They help the crew maintain the illusion of control. In the case of Freya and Gerard, they also become a form of support following their child’s death prior to the movie’s opening.
In other ways they are impractical. Gerard can’t swim because old sailors said that makes drowning pass quicker. These superstitions leave the captains ill-equipped to combat the creature that comes to plague the boat. The only people onboard who give them a fighting chance are Omid and Siobhan. They believe in fact and reason, using science to get a handle on how to battle the ocean dwelling threat.
In ways which evoke the xenomorph in Alien, Sea Fever’s monster is shrouded in mystery. Hardiman garners tension effectively by crafting a creature whose full abilities remain a mystery for much of the film’s runtime. Each discovery of its true nature by Omid and Siobhan ratchets the stakes higher. In particular, this is towards the finale where we learn along with the characters that the creature could have apocalyptic consequences for all mankind if it reaches the mainland.
Another fascinating part of Sea Fever is how the monster is not presented as a clear villain. As Siobhan points out, it’s only an organism trying to survive. There’s no emotion in its actions. In many respects, it’s actually the human captains who are at fault. They are the ones who, for financial gain, sail into restrictive waters – later avoiding two clear warnings all is not well to earn more money.
This, coupled with some scared selfish crew members willing to risk humanity’s safety by ditching Siobhan’s quarantine and sailing home, feels surprisingly timely given current events. These elements will have audiences questioning where their allegiances in Sea Fever should lie.
On top of all the rich themes, Hardiman’s direction is strong. She emphasises the claustrophobia of the cramped setting through tight framing. She also avoids cheap jump scares and never relies too heavily on gore. In terms of the latter, there’s just enough to convey the terror of the situation without viewers ever becoming desensitised to the violence.
In the third act – where the themes of the film take a backseat to typical sci-fi horror staples – Sea Fever becomes a tad predictable and rushed, lacking something to help it stand out from the movies it was influenced by. That minor qualm aside though, Hardiman’s film is a strong entry in Ireland’s blossoming horror new wave. Like another recent Dublin International Film Festival premiere, Vivarium, it thrills audiences while giving them plenty to ponder as the credits roll.