Too many sci-fi horror movies these days come off as desperate in their attempt to imitate the successful formula of Ridley Scott’s Alien, often taking its moody dread and isolation to new environments and stopping there. Just this past year, Underwater shamelessly transported the premise to the depths of the sea, but with Sea Fever—which premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is now hitting VOD—here’s a creepy monster movie that actually plays around with the Alien formula and offers some relevant, if not unfortunately coincidental, takeaways about living in quarantine.
Put more simply, Sea Fever interestingly splits the difference between Alien and Contagion, almost literally in the way it can often feel like two separate movies. This is the first feature film from Irish writer and director Neasa Hardiman, best known for her television work on Marvel’s Inhumans, Scott & Bailey, Happy Valley, and Z: The Beginning of Everything. In place of its planned theatrical release, the film went straight to on-demand due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and no, the real-life parallels don’t stop there.
The film opens with a researcher named Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) boarding a fishing trawler west of Ireland in order to study the wildlife. The blue collar crew is made up of underpaid, and in some cases overqualified, fishermen under the leadership of Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott). The dynamics between the crew are unsurprisingly simplistic, as we spend more time fixated on a surprise crash with a massive creature, which has parasitically attached itself to the hull, oozing a mysterious and perhaps dangerous substance.
Siobhán herself is an active and complex protagonist, believed to be a bad omen in the eyes of some of the crew due to her red hair, but she is of course a rational, no-nonsense scientist who finds the superstition more inconvenient than worth railing against. The film subtly hints that she might even be on the spectrum due to her sometimes awkward, antisocial behavior, while never robbing her of any humanity or believability as a means to explain away impossible genius. She’s simply a smart and observant person facing an unprecedented crisis. She’s allowed to fail, submit wrong ideas, and make decisions that even some in the audience will question.
The rest of the crew isn’t nearly as fascinating to watch, but that’s likely the point. The exception is Omid (Ardalan Esmaili), an engineer who gradually becomes Siobhán’s main ally in combating what turns out to be an invisible enemy, threatening their lives without the same bluster of a monster movie, but with its own brand of terror, all the same. Their methodical approach to fighting the film’s main threat is far more cerebral than it is bombastic, so anyone looking for nonstop gore and violence will undoubtedly be disappointed.
Still, what works about Sea Fever‘s set up and execution is that it’s just realistic enough to invoke the hidden horrors of the ocean, while also having enough science fiction to make the terror itself even more mysterious and unpredictable. Some audiences might see right through this trick and dismiss the movie long before the ending credits. But the slick look and impeccable production design of the film will do plenty to immerse viewers looking for something different to watch at home.
One of the film’s best gambits is to provoke a claustrophobic atmosphere on the cramped, dingy boat, while also emphasizing the endless possibilities of hidden spaces and holes where danger could be lurking at any moment. There’s so much room to escape, but at the same time, there’s nowhere to run, which the film reminds to great effect whenever we cut to the vast ocean surrounding the crew like a prison.
Sea Fever isn’t especially superb at anything it tries to do as a science fiction movie with horror elements. It’s not particularly scary, and its heady moralizing isn’t anything new or told in any unique way. But the combination of its effective genre storytelling with current real-life events makes for a surprisingly enjoyable experience, especially if you’re looking for a little substance underneath the surface.
Sea Fever is available for purchase or rent on VOD services, such as Prime Video, YouTube, or Google Play.