Quarantine Watchlist: Sea Fever

(Image source: RogerEbert.com)

Article written by Sam Stashower ’22

Had it come out at any other time, it’s likely that no one would’ve paid Sea Fever (2019) by Neasa Hardiman any mind outside of genre purists. But this film was released at the very beginning of lockdown, when we were all panicking and no one really knew what was going on, and as such the eerie similarities to real life within this film’s plot were advantaged. Not that we were being attacked by glowing blue sea monsters, mind you, but the film’s plot elements of forced isolation, airborne parasitic infection and the risk of anyone becoming a superspreader…it struck a nerve, we’ll say.

None of this, obviously, was intentional on the part of the filmmakers (at least, I assume it wasn’t). And to be clear, there’s plenty going on in Sea Fever (2019) that mostly works, even without its accidental prescience. It’s a classic horror movie setup, involving a fishing expedition that gets marooned in uncharted waters, and the crew coming across a highly contagious – not to mention fatal – parasitic lifeform. Essentially it’s Alien (1975), if Alien (1975) took place on the open waters instead of the Nostromo. 

There’s a lot this film draws from, actually. The nature of the monster is very Lovecraftian; not just the whole “fear of the unknown” thing, but in how similarly aquatic it is (Lovecraft, among his many phobias, was VERY afraid of the ocean). There’s a lot of The Thing (1982), in how you’re never sure who’s infected or not, and once the infection becomes apparent, the movie goes full Alien (2019) (there’s a lot of slimy things erupting suddenly from human bodies). And I remember at the time actually feeling a little bad for this movie, since it came out not long after Underwater (2020), the Kristen Stewart movie which was also marketed as “Alien (2019) but in the sea,” and which had the benefit of *spoilers for Underwater (2020)* actually featuring a “Great Old One” in its climax. 

I really didn’t like Underwater (2020) though, on account of the characters being awful and the situation never feeling suspenseful or scary. Sea Fever (2019), to be clear, is nowhere near the level of Alien (1975), but I feel like it comes by its Alien (2019) comparisons more honestly. I liked the characters more, at least, and thought the myriad of superstitions and the old-timey sailors had brought real flavor to the movie. There’s an authentic spirit to this movie, and I’m actually way more predispositioned to believe this kind of horror movie setup than I am others. I don’t know, there’s just something I buy about a marine exploration coming across something in the ocean that they just weren’t expecting, because…well, have you seen David Attenborough? There is SO MUCH STUFF down there, and we’ve barely even scratched the surface. 

Regardless of how “actually” realistic this is, I liked how the movie went about dramatizing the events. This is a competent, but unprepared, crew of people, who all behave professionally and responsibly, but it doesn’t matter because they have NEVER come across anything even remotely like this. I also really like the depiction of the “monster”; it behaves like a legit parasite, moving from person to person whenever it can, and there’s this constant sense that it’s only adhering to its nature, not actually attacking anyone or causing deaths out of malice. 

There were things about the presentation that I wasn’t a fan of; the film has this grey, washed-out quality to its cinematography, which kind of works at establishing an oceanic vibe to the picture, but which at other times just made the thing look dull. The cast is competent, and none of the characters are grating or strictly uninteresting, but no one really stands out. And in terms of sustaining tension, while the film benefits greatly from a 90 minute runtime, it does kind of peter out towards the end. It doesn’t end so much as stop; there’s no climax, no real denouement, and when the film faded to black, I kind of blinked and went, “Oh. Huh. Guess that was it.”

Still, as far as Sea Fever (2019) goes as a directorial debut, I think this is solid. It never feels like a low-budget feature, even though I guess that becomes somewhat obvious when you consider it all takes place mostly in just one location, but the set design and practical effects keep this thing feeling impressively polished and professional. In its best moments, the film captures a real melancholy that’s felt being out at sea, a sense of honest loneliness (which, for anyone who knows anything about the man, is about as Lovecraft as you can get). And coming in the aftermath of a year marked with real existential horrors, I think a more low-key horror movie like this – scary, but not too scary – has real value.

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