Sea Fever’s introduction of Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) shows the film’s leading lady as a graduate student detached from the rest of her classmates. Siobhán would rather spend time alone in the school lab, studying behavior patterns in aquatic life rather than hang out with her colleagues. When Siobhán’s professor tells her part of the program requires spending time on the open water on a fishing trawler with a bunch of strangers, she can hardly hide the discomfort this causes her.
While on the boat with this crew, led by couple Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott), they discover a tentacled creature underneath them, that oozes a parasitic creature into its hosts, with horrific and disgusting results. In her debut feature, writer-director Neasa Hardiman dives in on her obvious reference points for an isolated crew stuck dealing with an unexplainable creature. The initial discovery of what this parasite can do happens right after dinner, almost begging for Alien comparisons, as does a sequence where the crew investigates themselves to see if they are unaware hosts, just like in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
But about halfway through, Sea Fever moves beyond its decently-handled references with its own spin, and becomes an unwittingly prescient horror film for our current time. At a certain point, Siobhán argues that the crew should quarantine themselves, knowing that leaving their boat could infect others, whether they realize they have the parasite in their bodies or not. The crew rebels, pointing out that their needs are much greater than those of the larger world. In this strange confluence of release and modern day events, it becomes a film that is about far more in the present than was originally intended.
Hardiman presentation of the stubborn denial that people feel towards change for the betterment of everyone would’ve easily been read as a climate change allegory back when the film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Now, Sea Fever has an extra unintended meaning that makes it all the more powerful.
Even without the timeliness, Hardiman has crafted a tense, minimalist story with some solid character dynamics. Almost all of Sea Fever takes place on the fishing trawler, and as the film goes on, the claustrophobia does start to build. Though it does draw on isolated horror stories of the past, Hardiman finds her own take on them that plays off expectations from what has been seen before.
Amongst all this is a strong story centered around characters, not gross-out horror tricks or jump scares. Siobhán slowly starts to become more extroverted the more she finds she must rely on people and that they in turn must rely on her as well. Without much contrived exposition, Hardiman writes all these characters in a way where we understand just what they want out of their job on this boat and what they care most about, so as the panic starts to set in, Hardiman can unravel them in the most effective ways.
Sea Fever is a potent debut, a compelling thriller with both intentional and unintentional discussions of deeper issues for the here and now. It will resonate even when the world goes to some sense of normalcy, a glowing beacon of the difficulties to get us to do what is right instead of what is easy.
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