“Alien, but on a ship in the high seas” — for some folks, that description alone is enough to have them rolling their eyes and ready to dismiss a project for being too formulaic, too reductive. For others, it’s the perfect logline to get them salivating, Pavlovian-doggy style. (Remember, Ridley Scott’s classic was just “a haunted house movie in space.”) The good news is that Sea Fever, the Irish genre exercise that earned this concise comparison after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, should please both skeptics and superfans who swear by anything with even a soupçon of scariness. Yes, writer-director Neasa Hardiman’s tale of crew members vs. creep-crawlies owes a good deal to that late ’70s sci-fi landmark; there’s even a calm-before-the-storm scene that takes place around a communal dinner table. The movie also charts its own skewed course through the familiar waters it sails through. There’s also a matter of the timing at which this movie happens to slither into the public consciousness.
First, let’s meet our future final-girl. Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) is a marine biology student working on her doctorate. She’s just scored a chance to tag along on a fishing trawler called the Niamh Cinn-Óir (translation: Golden-Haired Niamh, a figure with deep roots in Irish mythology), owned and operated a married couple named Gerard and Freya (Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen). Siobhán’s speciality, as the tells one of the skippers, is observing patterns of underwater life and “generating algorithms that predict ecological outcomes.” And her presence isn’t exactly welcome by the crew members, given that she’s a redhead — a legendary omen of bad luck for sailors. Once they set sail, however, they spot several breaching orcas, a traditional sign of good fortune for seafarers. Siobhán, however, knows this is not the animals’ natural habitat. That’s her first sign that something is amiss.
The second sign is the giant red mass that shows up on their radar, and appears to be rapidly approaching them. When the boat is rocked by something a few seconds later, the radio is knocked out and the ship is unable to move. A quick inspection below decks reveals that something is slowly eating its way through the hull. When Siobhán dives beneath the vessel to see what’s holding them in place, she finds what appears to be a series of snake-like creatures latching on to the Niamh Cinn-Óir‘s side. Or maybe they’re the tendrils of a thing that’s much, much larger. And what exactly is that mysterious blue gel that keeps oozing through the cracks, and appears to be alive…?
From here, Sea Fever settles into a sort of catch-and-release rhythm as everyone tries to figure out what’s stalking them, how to combat it, and who may or may not be a potential host for whatever it is. Another ship is spotted nearby, which inspires a search party. You can guess where that leads (sort of). There’s also a testing scene that can’t help but bring to mind John Carpenter’s The Thing, even if it takes a far more muted tact than its predecessor does regarding the outcome. Should viewers be equally astute observers of patterns as the movie’s heroine, they’ll pick up that Sea Fever has a penchant for setting up recognizable horror-flick scenarios and then sidestepping your expectations. It’s one of the pleasantly surprising things about Hardiman’s toe-dip into these types of waters — a TV veteran who’s helmed episodes of Happy Valley and Jessica Jones, she’s fairly genre-fluent — although an adversity to cheap thrills sometimes plays against the proceedings. There are more than a few instances in which the potential for wringing the most out of the material is left unfulfilled, and along with a slacker-than-you’d-like pace, the movie occasionally feels like merely a tentative stab at a creature feature. It could, and should, be a lot more feverish.
But back to that notion of timing. Apologies if this is slightly spoiler-ish: We eventually find out there’s a contagious aspect to what’s happening onboard, which prompts arguments over whether it’s safe to return to port. Someone (who may be a carrier) wants to go ashore; Siobhán argues that, unless they isolate themselves, they risk infecting everyone around them. She’s seen this occur in nature before. This is how extinctions happen. Science, caution and rationality versus distrust, paranoia and fear that contact with your fellow human beings equals certain death — this stand-off becomes the film’s guiding light.
And suddenly, amid the claustrophobic compositions and shadowy hallways and tick-tick-tick of inevitable sickness, Sea Fever goes from being a monster movie to an eerily timed example of pandemic horror. Coming to a TV screen in a near you in the middle of a quarantine, this exercise in it-came-from-below suddenly takes on a whole other level of resonance. You may feel it’s a little too close to home, notably the one you’re consigned to until further notice. Or, as with so many tales of terror that seem to inadvertently hit upon a moment, this may be just the unexpected catharsis-delivery system you desperately need.