There is no shortage of great movies where a group of people is suddenly forced to confront an inexplicable or unimaginable terror, from Alien to The Thing to last year’s Annihilation. Fortunately, Neasa Hardiman’s directorial debut, Sea Fever, is worthy of sharing the same cinematic space merely for its unique execution alone. Feeding off paranoia, Sea Fever transplants a familiar horror concept out into the open seas, and exposes the tension between individual needs in a crumbling ecosystem.
The story sees Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) fail to make connections in the real world, as she spends most of her time devoted to her research in marine biology. When her research brings her aboard a fishing trawler, she’s forced to break her isolation and work with the crew to find out what is happening when their boat becomes latched onto by an unknown aquatic life form. It’s a simple premise, but one that results in some beautiful underwater imagery, as well as an underlying dread that wastes little time rising to the surface. Once the crew starts reacting to the symptoms of this strange lifeform, Sea Fever becomes a fairly standard re-telling of John Carpenter’s The Thing, or perhaps more aptly, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. The striking difference is that each crew member seems to have different motivations for being on board which arise in their reactions to the creature, with almost none of them are driven merely to kill. Motives can range from self-preservation to profit, but rarely does they have strictly to do with exterminating an unknown entity.
The idea of self-preservation is one that all of the films mentioned previously contend with in some way, but Sea Fever feels more in line with its environmentalist message by caring more about the preservation of something we don’t understand, as opposed to a crew that would destroy before attempting to comprehend. As the ship’s captains, Gerard (Dougray Scott) and Freya (Connie Nielsen) attempt to make a profit while also salvaging their ship, but their crew works well together, and they care about each other — which is one of the core reasons why the film’s moments of tension are all the more palpable. The chemistry between the cast feels natural, and only comes off as the opposite when Siobhán is introduced to the crew. That sense of invasiveness that the rest of the crew feels when Siobhán (a redhead, which is considered bad luck to bring aboard) arrives parallels that same feeling the aquatic life form brings to the crew.
Though Sea Fever is familiar in how its events play out, the sincerity that Corfield’s performance brings gives those events a new layer of emotional intensity. If anything, the film benefits from a derivative narrative, as it can play within the confines while still guaranteeing an enjoyable trip. No one is blowing everything up, but instead attempting to do things in a rational way; science and reasoning grounds everything, making Sea Fever an interesting movie beyond its basic premise. Hardiman has her characters attempt to move rationally through trials, but only in a way that makes the most sense to them. However, just because a character’s actions make sense, doesn’t mean the things they’re reacting to can be understood.
While Sea Fever plays within familiar waters, it remains an enjoyable experience. Thrilling when need be, with all the trappings for a great late-night feature, it possesses a strong, singular vision. An assured directorial debut that has a potent message of humanity’s place in an environment that is constantly changing and adapting to a shifting climate, the film may ultimately boil down to a story about a crew forced to survive an unknown creature. But placing the perspective in the hands of its environmentally-conscious main character gives it a new, refreshing angle for genre fans to praise.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15