When a fishing boat is attacked by a giant deep-sea monster, it’s not the glowing tentacles which are the real threat ― it’s the tiny, lethal parasites they secrete. The struggle to return to shore becomes a struggle to stay away, as the desperate need for medical attention makes it impossible for the crew to self-quarantine. Writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever may have an uncanny resonance with current events, but an indecisive script means there isn’t much hidden away in its depths.
Marine scientist and introvert Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) reluctantly joins the crew of the Niamh Cinn Óir as part of her PhD studies. Though she steps aboard the boat in the current day, it’s apparently also the 1800s; when she’s revealed as a redhead, the crew react as though she’s cursed. Red-haired people bringing bad luck to boats is an old Irish nautical superstition, but it feels anachronistic amongst digital radars, desalinators, and scientific jargon.
Also on board are easygoing Johnny (Jack Hickey), his aunt Ciara (Olwen Fouéré), and shipmate Sudi (Elie Bouakaze), working under the superstitious command of Captain Gerard and his wife Freya (Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen). The crew’s financial struggles aren’t as dire as their need for personality, with hardly a character trait to share. Only quietly charming Syrian engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) is more substantial, slowly building rapport with the clinical, detached Siobhan.
The thin characterisation leads to a weak, watery plot. Siobhan is a scientist who “extrapolates patterns” and “generates algorithms” about deep-sea animal behaviour. Her inability to describe what she studies is a punchline in need of a setup; we never learn what she specialises in, what her doctorate is about. This vagueness enables Siobhan to be as knowledgeable or as naive as the plot requires. Show of hands: if you’re a scientist, and the metal hull of your boat has just been breached and is leaking an unidentified blue gunk, would you stick your finger in it?
Hardiman’s direction is solid, if perfunctory. Cold blues and greens give the film a sickly tone reminiscent of European TV thrillers. The monster is suitably frightening, even as its vivid glow provides a gorgeous relief to the otherwise dingy palette. The film’s forays into horror are its strongest points, though sadly few and far between. A single explicit moment of gore ― avert your eyes if you have issues with, well, eyes ― hints at what Sea Fever could have been if it committed to the bit.
Sea Fever shares common ground (or water?) with well-known genre fare: Alien (1979), The Mist (2007), Arrival (2016), and every zombie film ever made. Yet its combination of conventions feels incomplete, a hodge-podge of things we’ve seen many times before without investment in the relationship between them. Of the similarly murky (and somehow fellow 2020 release) Underwater, Samuel Harris notes the comfort found in “B-movie indulgences that relish in the familiar”. I dearly missed that element of excitement here. If there’s anything that goes well with a bit of relish, it’s squid.
Perhaps Sea Fever best encapsulates the current moment, not through its pandemic prevention plot, but through its inability to stay focused on a singular theme. It’s a monster horror until it’s not; it’s an enclosed space thriller until it’s not; it’s a contagion drama until it’s not. Sea Fever’s shifting threats are independent rather than cumulative, each draining the others of power and meaning. When someone screams that Siobhan is a “FUCKING REDHEAD,” it’s difficult to take seriously ― all the greater shame when Sea Fever‘s central conceit barely feels like a conceit at all.
Sea Fever screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.
Agnes Forrester is a screen writer and critic based in Melbourne, Australia. She has even more opinions on Twitter at @cartridgepink.