Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is a classicly inspired minimalist sci-fi thriller in the tradition of The Thing and most notably Ridley Scott’s Alien. Like its predecessors, Hardiman makes expert use of small spaces, slowly building dread and suspense. With its soft colors, subtle score and naturalistic performances, its a slight film with a focus on character and emotion.
In the center is Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), a headstrong scientist with an independent spirit and few social skills. The film begins with one of her professors suggesting that she get out into the world more and interact with the people around her. Knowledgeable in her field and not much else, she is thrown for a loop when she finds herself out to sea with a crew of friendly, extroverted fishermen. The early scenes are grounded in character, as the crew tries to slowly coax Siobhán out of her shell. Spearheading this effort is Freya (Connie Nielson), a den mother figure who encourages Siobhán to join the world.
Sea Fever a claustrophobic film, with a small cast confined to a space that quickly becomes their prison. Films like this are timeless, leaning on human’s inherent fear of the ultimate unknown: each other. It’s refreshing to see a female director step into this tradition, subtly altering the gaze we’re used to. The women in Sea Fever lead the action while also acting as the emotional anchors of the film. In turn, the men are emotionally erratic, struggling as they find themselves out of control for perhaps the first time in their lives. Compared to everyone else, Siobhán is a much more quiet and contemplative character. Corfield plays her as a woman always in the middle of quiet contemplation, with the people around her functioning mainly as interruptions.
What begins with all the makings of an emotional awakening drama quickly shifts to horror territory when a parasite is found the crew’s water supply. The mood becomes frantic as body horror and paranoia begins to overtake the film. The change is gradual, but there’s still a jarring sense of what is lost when the film switches gears, pushing all the character development to the wayside. Sea Fever never really recovers, but the shift in gear opens up the scope of the story to more fantastical implications.
Hardiman leans into the spiritual nature of the sea, portraying it as a beautiful unknown full of life beyond the reaches of human experience. There are moments when it seems as if the sea is calling Siobhán, hinting a purpose beyond science and the friendships she tries to build on the ship. Perhaps there is more for her down her.
Despite its winning cast and genuinely interesting meditation on family versus isolation, Sea Fever falls short of its potential. All of the ingredients are there for both a rich character study and a thrilling old-fashioned sci-fi tale, but Sea Fever ends up somewhere in the middle, leaving us thirsting for a richer story with more intentionality.