In what we can call a pretty odd coincidence, the day before I took in this film I read for the first time the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, perhaps best known in the modern day for being the basis for the 1982 John Carpenter film The Thing, and a 2011 remake of the same name. It’s a great old school sci-fi story, that well deserves its reputation for excellent depictions of claustrophobic tension, alien terror and very human breakdowns. And then suddenly, when looking for a new film to watch, I came across Sea Fever, having missed the chance to see it earlier this year at the Dublin Film Festival.
Like so many other films that have come and gone since Campbell published his story in 1938, I could see that Sea Fever owed a whole lot to Who Goes There? before I watched a minute of it, but my appreciation for the story actually helped whet the appetite so to speak. That Sea Fever was an Irish film, with a directorial debut from Neasa Hardiman and an understatedly eye-catching cast did the rest. But there was also some of the buzz about the film I have read during the summer, with comparisons to the COVID pandemic that was something worth considering. Horror is not my usual forte, but I made an exception in this case: was Sea Fever worth the exception, and a suitable ode to Campbell’s work? Or just another tired low-budget horror short on ideas?
Marine biology student Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) buys a place on a fishing trawler, the Niamh Cinn Oir, in order to study Atlantic wildlife. The anti-social Siobhan struggles to relate to the crew – under pressure Skipper Gerald (Dougray Scott), his capable wife Freya (Connie Nelson), over-experienced engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili), superstitious cook Ciara (Olwen Fouere) and happy-go-lucky hands Johnny (Jack Hickey) and Sudi (Elie Bouakaze) – but when the ship stumbles upon a mysterious parasitic creature out at sea, she may be the only one who can save them from a gruesome death.
I must admit, Sea Fever caught me a bit unexpectedly. Even with all of the attractions that I mention above, I was honestly not contemplating seeing something this good or this polished. It’s a film that feels like it was very carefully put together and the execution is fantastic, meshing a very, by now, well-worn story of people being trapped in a confined space with a monster with some very thought-provoking material regards fear, contagion and the terrible outcome when the two are mixed. Thus, to say that Sea Fever is the perfect film for 2020 is understating the matter quite decisively.
But purely on its own merits it is a very enjoyable affair. Leaning more towards sci-fi unease than flat-out horror, Hardiman does a good job at teasing things out without overplaying her hand or making Sea Fever too lengthy: we spend just enough time in every act to feel comfortable, from Siobhan’s stuttering efforts to integrate with the crew, the growing crisis of the middle section and the breakdown of the last. In what must be called a really key success of script all seven characters onboard the Niamh Cinn Oir stand-out in different ways, with their own quirks, personality flaws and clashes with others: Gerald, hard-up, sails the ship into an exclusion zone to the despair of his more capable wife; Ciara breaks under pressure the easiest, having initially seemed like the most calm; Johnny perhaps spends a bit more time with Siobhan than he really should, and is laid back to a fault; Sudi has dreams of a better life back on the mainland; Omid knows he can be in a better place in life but is reluctant to let go of what he has.
The perils of an economically fragile existence – the skipper couple are in debt, the Syrian engineer is supporting a refugee family, one of the hands is desperate to have the money to present a normal life back on shore – is a throughline, adding a realistic level of tension as the crew resist abandoning their goal of a fine catch even as the larger situation becomes increasingly dangerous, something that smacks of honest depiction. The best films of this genre are ones that can capture that kind of feeling, that anxiety of modern-day living, and place it in the extraordinary confines of the story. There are no villains, unless humanity in general is. And in the middle of it all, the outsider and audience surrogate, is Siobhan as well, the biology student suddenly called upon to be the voice of reason when an unknown life form attacks the boat without anyone realising it.
Corfield is not called upon to showcase a great deal of range in the course of Sea Fever, but does a more than acceptable job with the character (and the accent, which the English-born actress nails with an aplomb that others in Hollywood would do well to study, cough cough, Emily Blunt). The anti-social – the director has used the term neurodivergent as a descriptor – Siobhan doesn’t want to get on the boat at all and immediately rubs people up the wrong way – “Why don’t you have a better job?” she thoughtlessly asks the engineer after admiring his work – but over the course of time and familiarity we do get to see her come out of her shell, all the way up to a surprisingly sexually charged moment with Jack Hickey’s Johnny. She isn’t disparaging of the crew – when her red hair is pointed out as bad luck by the superstitious seafarers, she volunteers to keep it covered without complaint – but maintains that distance (social distance we might call it).
I think it’s a decent portrayal of introverts and what they are really like, which is not socially maladjusted cave dwellers, but people who just need time to get used to others. Later, when the crisis comes, Corfield is a good representation of scientific logic in the face of emotional panic: reasoned, decisive and unwilling to tolerate fantasy, wanting to apply a scientific method in place of some kind of combat with the creature, which is an interesting inversion of the genre tropes. By the end she’s actually a bit of a scientific hero. The rest of the cast is exceptional too, all in their own ways: Nelson and Fouere are probably the stand-outs, making Sea Fever an unlikely candidate for best female cast of the year.
Fear of the unknown, greedy hubris leading inevitably to a deadly nemesis, conscious environmental exploitation, psychological damage from life at sea – the “fever” of the title, directly linked to sleep deprivation, which seems like another stab at the stresses of modern life – problem-solving science in the style of The Martian or Lost In Space, Sea Fever makes the absolute most of its premise and its time. One of the things that I enjoyed the most was one of the most simple aspects: an allegory on the story of the mythical Niamh, she being the consort of Oisin who took him to Tir na Nog, that comes into play rather effectively with the conclusion, set-up with just a few simple lines on the nature of bioluminescence in the sea and finished with one of the more spectacular underwater shots of the production. Sea Fever never wastes a minute, either in the moment or in set-up for something to come.
Most of this would mean very little if Sea Fever looked like what you would expect from its budget, but happily it does not. Hardiman directs the film with a skill that is beyond her nominal experience at this level, capturing very well the characters that inhabit the ship and the mise en scene of its various details. It’s rare enough that I actual notice framing as a skill, but it is noticeable here, the way that characters inhabit the screen in the best possible way for them to showcase their talents. There are plenty of clever visual moments too besides: something as simple as a night-to-day transition while looking at the wake of the Niamh Cinn Oir is done very well, as is the placement of the camera for interior shots, that often have you feeling like you are looking at a cross–section of the ship, such is the way that the best possible use of space is done.
Of course the budget cannot do much when it comes to the actual “monster” – some sort of parasitic squid/jellyfish creature – but the budget limitations had to kick in somewhere. But this is very much a case of less is more: the sight of a single bioluminescent tentacle waving ominously through the water does more than any giant CGI monster could do. In that way it sort of reminds me of Europa Report, which also featured an unlikely squid monster whose appearance was limited and high-impact as a result. Grisly moments are actually few and far between: one, the first time the parasite strikes, is as traditional horror as the film actually gets.
Sea Fever does also have very topical relevance, an almost strange relevance given that it was first released to festivals in late 2019. It’s a movie where a group of people come into contact with a dangerous organism that kills, and can spread quickly in a confined space: one character preaches caution, quarantine and appeals to a sense of sacrifice when it comes to the possibility of returning home too early and potentially endangering others. To varying degrees, this character is cooperated with, shouted down, physically assaulted or simply not listened to, by a larger group that is, more often than not, happier to indulge in an emotion-driven response to the problem. When Connie Nelson’s Freya insists the old ship can’t take the methods Siobhan proposes to kill the parasites, you can faintly hear politicians insisting that “the cure can’t be worse than the disease”.
We actually do see what has been the COVID response play out: there is resistance, there is denial, there is fatigue and, in certain other measures, there is sacrifice. The larger message of Sea Fever on this score would appear to be that most people cannot be relied upon to toe the line and insure the larger safety of the community, which will result in their own destruction and the destruction of others: a smaller number may provide a degree of redemption for the larger group. If this film had been made later, I would have said that Hardiman perfectly captures the COVID experience in a well-thought out allegorical production, and I suppose that it is to her credit: Sea Fever certainly carries some resonance.
It seems like the late part of 2020 is the best part for Irish films. I already had one good low-budget film in Calm With Horses, and now another has popped up only a few weeks later. I have thought long and hard about it, and I do think that Sea Fever is the better production. Maybe it is just the way that it has, unintentionally, become one of the most relevant films of this year, but it’s also because it is a very good idea executed very well. The cast is excellent, the script is superb and it is shot with care and skill. It manages to say an awful lot in just 90 minutes, and is a suitable continuation of the legacy of Campbell and his story. It is far from a brainless sci-fi horror: it is instead an excellent example of what a film industry of limited size and resources can produce, given a committed cast working to a good screenplay and with a good director. More than that, in the age of COVID, it is the exact sort of film that should be considered defining: an example to inspire fear, and compliance, even if it is allegorical. For that, Sea Fever must be considered highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Wildcard Distribution).