Sea Fever is a perfect horror story for the COVID-19 pandemic
A mostly spoiler-free review of the recently released Sea Fever, a movie that isn't actually about coronavirus, but feels like it was made for this moment.
(Minor spoilers to follow)
In the not-so-distant future that seems impossibly far away as we enter the fourth month of shelter-in-place and/or social distancing, once writers, directors, actors, and everyone else involved in the movie-making process are able to meet up in person and resume production, I imagine we’ll be inundated with pandemic movies. The Seth Rogen comedy about a quarantine romance between a takeout delivery driver and a hungry customer. The M. Night Shyamalan horror flick telling the story of how the plants really engineered the disease to kill humanity. The Alex Garland sci-fi film that examines how the pandemic helped further normalize and empower the surveillance state. In the meantime, before COVID-19 turns into a memory we revisit at crowded movie theaters, Sea Fever has already arrived as the best film of and for this moment.
Intended to hit theaters this past April after making its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September to positive reviews, Sea Fever instead became yet another movie to bypass theaters and head straight to VOD in the wake of the global pandemic that has put the movie industry on pause. Written and directed by Neasa Hardiman in her feature film directorial debut and featuring an ensemble cast of mostly unknown actors with the exception of Connie Nielsen, who you might recognize from Gladiator, Wonder Woman, and Justice League, and Hermione Corfield, who has held minor roles in blockbuster franchises like Mission Impossible and Star Wars, Sea Fever isn’t actually about COVID-19 and the resulting pandemic that we find ourselves in — far from it, as you can probably guess by reading the title or watching the trailer.
Sea Fever is actually about six fishermen and one scientist who run into trouble off the coast of Ireland — rather, trouble swims into them. While searching for a big catch that’ll net them a profit, a big catch catches them and turns their boat into ground zero of what could become a global pandemic far deadlier than the one we’re stuck in. At first, it appears on the radar as a blip. Excitedly, they think it’s a shoal. But the magnitude of the collision that rocks their trawler tells them the blip isn’t a school of fish, but something far bigger. The scientist puts on scuba gear to investigate. What she sees beneath the surface scares her senseless. “I’m never going back down there again,” she says as the rest of the crew questions what has grabbed onto them. With tendrils lodged into the hull, the squid-like creature is infecting them with some sort of green slime that is eating into the framework of the boat. And as we all know about boats, they’re the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases.
Initially, the crew is more perplexed than scared, which explains why, after the creature releases them, they continue on with their work instead of returning home. The skipper wants to capture the squid-like creature. At the very least, he wants to catch something that’ll generate a profit. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that remaining at sea ends up being a mistake. It turns out, the creature has infected the ship with a parasite that is spreading among them. The crew races home as the parasite slowly, but surely consumes them. In a COVID-19 world, you won’t be able to watch the movie without wanting to scream at the TV as the cast continually touches their faces in what is, by far, the most infuriating aspect of the movie.
The scientist, a shy and awkward red-headed student named Siobhán, ends up becoming the voice of reason. We meet Siobhán, our reluctant heroine, in a laboratory. She’s studying something underneath a microscope. On the other side of the glass wall, a birthday celebration ensues. Siobhán ignores her colleagues eating birthday cake. “I don’t do joining in,” she says. When a polite boy offers her some, she looks at him as if he’s just offered her a poisoned slice. She leaves the comfort of the lab only when her professor forces her to join a fishing expedition so that she can study anomalies in the real world. Otherwise, he’ll fail her.
“It’s in totally the wrong place,” Siobhán says of the fauna underneath her microscope.
“No, you’re in the wrong place,” the professor replies.
And thus, Siobhán’s journey into the sea begins.
She takes her spot aboard the Niamh Cinn-Oir among a crew of six. There’s the grizzled skipper, Gerard, who feels the pressure of returning home with a sizable catch that can provide his crew with money, and his wife, Freya, who in addition to wanting what Gerard wants, feels protective of both the crew and her boat. There’s Ciara, an older woman who along with most of the crew, subscribes to myths of the deep blue, Johnny, the do-good member of the crew who serves as the potential love interest of Siobhán, Omid, the smartest of the bunch (not including Siobhán), and Sudi, a boy who cares about the sort of things boys typically care about (impressing some girl back ashore).
From the get-go, Siobhán doesn’t want to be there. Likewise, the majority of the crew doesn’t want her there either. Her reason is simple. She doesn’t like people. If it were up to her — and if she didn’t have a doctorate to complete — she’d still be in the lab with nothing but her equipment and specimens to study, alone.
“I need my own space,” she says in the opening scene. “I can’t deal with other people.”
Their reason for not wanting her there is also simple. At first, they don’t really understand how to interact with a proper nerd like Siobhán, who lacks basic social skills. Then, they discover something about her far more terrifying than her social anxiety or intelligence. She has red hair — considered to be bad luck at sea, especially in a boat that desperately needs to return home with a big catch. Upon catching sight of her red hair that had been previously hidden under a beanie, the skipper turns to Freya, who can only shrug. They’ve already spent Siobhán’s fee, which means they can’t leave her ashore. They’ll be forced to proceed with the red-headed awkward scientist onboard, sabotaging their efforts to make a living at sea.
Onboard, Siobhán is meant to study anomalies in what the crew catches. It’s fitting then that she herself is an anomaly among a crew of superstitious fishermen who believe in myth over science.
At first, under the normal conditions of everyday fishing life, it’s a minor nuisance. She’s not as much a fish flopping around on land as she is a fish swimming among another species that outnumbers her, but accepts her presence as long as she doesn’t get in their way. Trying to read in her bunk with a flashlight late on her first night, she’s quickly relegated to the cold deck where she can read without disturbing sailors trying to sleep enough to avoid sea fever.
It’s topside in the dead of night where Freya finds Siobhán and takes her to the stern of the ship to show her something beautiful bubbling at the surface of the dark water.
Siobhán: “It’s a bioluminescent phytoplankton.”
Freya: “It’s one of the stories of Niamh Cinn-Oir. She was so sad about losing her lover Oisin, she gave herself to the sea.”
Siobhán: “Drowned herself?”
Freya: “No. No. She is immortal. That’s her hair. Lights up the sea.”
Their conversation is both illuminating, highlighting the differences between the crew and Siobhán, and a harbinger of a battle to come. Myth vs. science. Belief vs. facts. Don’t worry, though, the conflict isn’t overcooked. We don’t get a soliloquy on how science trumps religion or vice versa. It’s merely meant to underscore the underlying barrier between Siobhán and the crew, the differences in their wiring. That said, it’s made clear that it’s Siobhán in the right and the crew, for the most part, in the wrong.
At the beginning of the movie, it’s established that vessels, per orders from the coast guard, aren’t allowed to sail through an exclusion zone. Freya and the skipper curse. The exclusion zone is where they were hoping to fish. Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, including Freya, the skipper takes them into the exclusion zone.
In the early stages of their voyage, before they’re attacked by the creature, whales are spotted off their starboard side. The crew is pleased, with the exception of Siobhán, who notes that “something’s wrong.” She’s not a sailor, but she knows that whales avoid fishing lanes because of the noise emitted from man-made vessels. The crew ignores her to see what they want to see.
“Whales are a good omen,” Ciara says.
“Whales are a very good omen,” Sudi corrects her.
The thing about the ocean is that it shares so many of the qualities that make outer space such an enticing setting for movies and on a broader level, storytelling. In it, humans can’t breathe without special equipment. Most of it is unmapped and unexplored. Unfathomable monsters lurk in the shadows. The darkness is naturally horrifying, appealing to a universal fear that every age group can understand. It’s a creative haven.
In space, no one can hear you scream. Underwater screams can’t be heard above the surface. In that sense, the movie that most reminded me of Sea Fever was Alien. Not just in terms of setting, but also in terms of atmosphere and the quiet but budding tension that comes to consume it. In Alien, the Nostromo is alone in the cold dark vacuum of space as the xenomorph hunts them. In Sea Fever, the Niamh Cinn-Oir is alone at sea as a mysterious parasite silently infects them. The camera pulls back to remind the audience just how alone the crew is at sea, careful to orient the ship in a vast and open expanse that swallows them whole.
Despite the rising tension, the movie never fully erupts. The monster disengages from the ship, leaving behind nothing but the green goo and whatever it contains. Halfway through, Sea Fever goes from a monster movie to an outbreak movie.
It’s not just man vs. mysterious ocean creature or man vs. virus. It’s also Siobhán vs. the rest of the crew. As they speed toward home with their crew reeling from the virus that’s taken hold of their ship, Siobhán, fully grasping that whatever it is that is plaguing their ship cannot make it ashore to infect the population back home, urges everyone to stay onboard until they’re certain that they’re not carriers of the virus. She wants everyone to self quarantine for 36 hours. They disagree.
The same debate rages at least three times. First, Siobhán tries to use a tangible, but impersonal example when speaking with Freya.
Siobhán: “You know Christmas Island? It has the world’s biggest population of red crabs — it used to.”
Siobhán: “So, a few yellow ants arrived and they blinded the red crabs. Just a few ants. Now there aren’t anymore red crabs. Do you see what I mean?”
Freya: “Yeah, the crabs should’ve gone to the hospital.”
Siobhán: “This is what I do. Faunal behavior in —”
Freya: “Yes, in a lab. But this is the real world. With real people.”
Siobhán: “And in the real world, if we go ashore and one of us is a carrier, then those things will spread, really fast.”
Later, she tries to appeal to Omid by putting it in very frank real-life terms.
Siobhán: “Where do you live?”
Siobhán: “200,000 people in Galway, right? … We can’t say we’re so important that it’s worth risking the lives of 200,000 people.”
Finally, she asks the group to think of their families.
Omid: “So you want us to sit out here and die. “
Siobhán: “I want us to stay on the boat until we’re sure that none of us is infected.”
Gerard: “Your bloody 36 hours.”
Siobhán: “It’s not mine. It’s your family’s. It’s your husband’s. It’s your baby’s. Blame me if you want. We have to take action. We have to take responsibility.”
Before COVID-19, it might’ve felt like redundant storytelling. How many times do we need to see the same argument play out? After COVID-19, it feels entirely necessary namely because, well, aren’t so many of us having the same argument with those who aren’t taking social distancing and quarantine measures seriously enough? Instead of arguing about it on the internet, she’s arguing about it on a small ship with scared sailors who want to get home to the comfort of their families.
There aren’t many ways a global pandemic can actually make things better and enhance our lives. As it pertains to COVID-19 specifically, the only way I can really think of is the environment. It turns out, shutting down the world to quell the spread of a deadly virus is actually good for a planet that we seem hellbent on destroying through our own devices — don’t worry, though, we’re well on our way to moving to Mars. In a far lesser area of importance, the pandemic has also elevated a movie like Sea Fever.
To be clear, even without COVID-19, Sea Fever would’ve been a good movie. It masterfully builds and sustains tension. It’s refreshingly taut, clocking in at only 94 minutes. There’s not a wasted breath or line of dialogue, from the opening scene in the lab to the final moments at sea. Things said in that opening scene end up mattering once the entire context of the film comes into focus. The atmosphere building is exemplary. The acting is understated, but superb. The character work is enough to sustain the movie entirely on its own.
At the core of the story is an equally powerful personal journey. In the space of 94 minutes, Siobhán undergoes a quiet, but remarkable transformation from a quiet scientist who doesn’t want to be on the boat at all to the sole voice of reason and the reluctant hero of the story. Along the way, she even manages to come out of her shell enough to make a convincing and confident pass at Johnny in the last truly normal human moment of the movie.
Corfield gives Siobhán the portrayal her character deserves. She’s always confident in her work, quietly at first, but her volume grows as the situation escalates and those around her begin to succumb to it. She’s emotive without yelling or shouting or crying; it’s more about her mannerisms and expressions. In some ways, Corfield’s performance reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence’s in Winter’s Bone and Florence Pugh’s in Midsommar. Quietly resilient in the face of tumultuous uncertainty.
It’s very much a movie about belonging. It’s no coincidence that Siobhán feels out of place away from the lab and on a boat among sailors. As much as the movie is about a monster and a killer parasite, it’s also a story of Siobhán finding a place where she feels like she belongs — a journey that is mirrored in the monster that latches onto them. Siobhán theorizes that the monster has mistaken the ship for a whale. It’s not evil. It’s just lost, she reasons. Earlier in the movie, when the issue of her red hair arises, she only says, “I can’t change what I am.” But by the end, she does change, drastically. I think she ends up seeing a piece of herself in the mysterious sea creature.
Even if the movie had been released as intended in a pandemic-free world, those qualities would’ve remained. But in a world that’s been consumed by COVID-19, the movie holds additional resonance. It’s about a collective responsibility to quell the spread of a deadly disease. It’s about paying attention to the warning signs, like going home after a giant fucking creature from the ocean grabs onto your ship and infects it with some sort of green gel, and listening to experts, like the scientist who knows that whales in a fishing lane aren’t an omen of good luck, but a sign of something wrong. It’s about the importance of science. It’s about how thoughts and prayers alone aren’t ever enough. Tangible action involving personal sacrifice matters more.
Toward the end of the movie, when things have seriously gone to shit onboard the Niamh Cinn-Oir, the skipper and Freya take turns praying aloud.
“God is our hope and strength. God is our hope. We will not fear, though we be in the midst of the sea,” the skipper says.
“God is with us and we will not be removed,” Freya continues.
“There is no help,” Siobhán says later.
She’s wrong. God might not be there to help them, but she’s still there.
None of this is intended to suggest that Sea Fever is a perfect movie. If it hadn’t come out in this specific moment, I would’ve complained that the movie never peaks enough. I’m all for a slow-burn, but only if the explosion the slow-burn is building toward is effervescent enough to make the slow-burn worthwhile. Sea Fever never really explodes. But to criticize Sea Fever for its commitment to restraint would be unfair. It never aspires to explode. It wants to be something smaller, something realer. If I’m going to judge movies on what they’re trying to be — which is the criteria I try to use — then Sea Fever aces the test. It’s great for what it wants to be.
Earlier, I compared it to Alien, a classic that has shaped both science fiction and horror in the four decades since its release. Sea Fever won’t ever be that. Instead, it feels more like it might be the beginning of something great. For Corfield, who has very much proven that she’s qualified to be a leading actress on the biggest possible stage. Like Lawrence and Pugh before her, she has the makings of a superstar. And for Hardiman, who made one hell of a debut as a feature film director. If either breaks out in a mainstream way — something I’d bet on — Sea Fever will be the text that we point to as the first clear signal of their eventual greatness, like a flare over the open ocean on a pitch-black night.
There’s no way Hardiman could’ve known during Sea Fever’s conception that it would be released during a global pandemic that helps ground the movie, but thanks to a rather tragic case of serendipity, she wound up making a film that is going to resonate with everyone who lives through our own slow-burn of a horror story. I can only hope that we listen to the Siobháns of the real world as we navigate our way out of a seemingly unending sea of horrifying change, uncertainty, and terror.