Deftly packed in just around 90 minutes, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever (2019) draws its mystery from deep within the nautical abyss. Hardiman, for whom this is a feature film debut, never sinks her own ship thanks to dedicated performances and the inch-by-inch dozed sense of entrapment and hopelessness. On top of that, the movie arrived as a timely cautionary tale amid the COVID-19 pandemic, showing the dangers of not taking invisible threats seriously enough.
Sailors rarely had it easy in the history of cinema. The sea and its nautical inhabitants have been represented as a hostile force, pushing sailors to the edge or fighting for their lives. If it wasn’t some mythical creature such as Moby Dick in In The Heart Of The Sea (2015), it was the endless waters themselves driving the poor souls completely mad.
For a group of fishermen stuck on an Irish trawler in Sea Fever (2019), the problems begin even before leaving the port. That’s when Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) joins the crew, an introverted student pushed by her professor to practice in the field. Immediately after the ship’s engine roars for the first time, Siobhán earns the badge of the scapegoat for being a redhead – an omen of bad luck for superstitious sailors.
When the ship gets stranded in a saltwater desert, the student is the only one brave enough to dive into the deep and investigate the potential danger. Her discovery’s shocking. Beneath the trawler lies a gargantuan, octopus-like creature, with its glowing tentacles firmly attached to the sides of the ship. Things quickly take a turn for the worse.
Hardiman’s film proves that a captivating sci-fi adventure can be created without the budget of the Avatar franchise. Similar to the Nostromo crew of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the sailors are confined within the walls of Niamh Cinn Oir, hoping the creature’s grasp won’t be as powerful as that of a Kraken. However, Sea Fever (2019) is not a cheap CGI monster movie. Following in Ridley Scott’s trailblazer footsteps, Hardiman carefully builds the mystery and reveals fractions of the painting which leave the audience guessing. Not one scene provides a complete understanding of what lies beneath – an overgrown squid? An extraterrestrial?
Whether or not the creature is actually an alien is up for debate. However, the fear factor in Sea Fever (2019) does not come from the monster of the depths, but from Lovecraftian themes that blur the lines between reality and imagination. Director Neasa Hardiman masterfully creates an enigmatic layer that is bolstered by a palpable fear of contamination and an invisible enemy that is already on board. In a world where potential hosts are confined to limited space, this is a timely matter to explore.
Despite the fact that we are three years into a global pandemic, Sea Fever reaffirms that certain behaviors are catalysts for spreading out, and the crew of the Niamh Cinn Oir captures a variety of these patterns. Siobhán sees the world through microscopic lenses, ship technician Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) fixes things and hopes to fix the problem, and Freya (Connie Nielsen) displaces the threat. All of these coping mechanisms were tested by the pandemic.
On a side note, the movie Sea Fever (2019) is about tackling one threat at a time. And that’s also eerily reminiscent of the pandemic. The director seeks answers to what constitutes a bigger threat – an unknown entity lurking from the unfathomable depths or an invisible parasite that seems to prey on humans. Or, perhaps, it is the humans themselves, with their fear-mongering, chaos, and selfishness that sow destruction.
While the claustrophobic environment and sense of danger aboard the trawler play to Hardiman’s strengths, the director stumbles a few times, causing the movie to run aground. Like many sci-fi or underwater thrillers, such as Underwater (2020), Event Horizon (1997), or Life (2017), being trapped in a confined space has its limits as a fear factor. A deadly hunter is more riveting than an invisible disease – even when the story is as thin as paper, as in Prey (2022).
In the end, Sea Fever (2019) falls short of fulfilling its premise. Only slightly, but it does. Those anticipating a sci-fi adventure or a horror film will be disappointed. Instead, it is best to view it as a nautical thriller, similar to Icelandic drama Brim (2010), Captain Phillips (2014), or Hidden (2015), which have more in common with Sea Fever than proper horror films.
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