Nautical horror has its own distinctive style. Creaking metal and salty sailors adrift on an endless ocean provide an inimitable sense of drama. The contrast between the cramped corridors of a ship and the infinite vistas of the high seas lend a filmmaker endless visual possibilities. The only issue is that our cultural understanding of life at sea is so limited and so reliant on stereotypes and myths that we often fall back on storytelling clichés. This is part of the problem with Neasa Hardiman‘s Sea Fever, a film that has all the makings of a classic nautical nightmare, but lacks the originality to be truly memorable.
Our lead is Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), an introverted marine biology student forced out of the comfort of the lab and onto a small fishing boat in order to gain field experience. The trawler’s close-knit crew are initially suspicious of Siobhán (her red hair is a sure sign of bad luck), but their frosty reception begins to thaw when the boat is placed in danger. A mysterious glowing creature has latched onto the ship, and soon members of the crew fall prey to a deadly disease.
The cinematography on show is excellent. Each nut, bolt and rivet of the ship is shot in gorgeous detail. This is a cramped, tactile space and cinematographer Ruairí O’Brien really manages to crank up the sense of claustrophobia that is key to telling this kind of story. The creature effects are not staggering, but go some way to capturing the ethereal other-worldliness of bio-luminescent deep sea creatures.
There are also a few effective moments of body horror, as the infection takes hold of the crew. However, these are a bit too few and far between for the film to comfortably fit into the horror category. Instead, it hovers somewhere around science fiction and ecological thriller territory, somehow never satisfactorily committing to either.
Where the film focuses on the delicate balance of man and nature, and the familial bond of the crew, the writing is effective and often moving. However, where the film tries to scare, it falls back into more pedestrian waters. With obvious nods to Alien, The Thing and other science-y corridor chillers, horror fans will feel familiarity with the film, but they are unlikely to be challenged. The creature itself and its origins aren’t explored in any great depth, which is disappointing given that the film hints at an environmental message. An explanation of the peril the crew faces might have helped situate their predicament in a context of ecological collapse, but as it is, the creature may as well be an alien.
It is the performances of the cast that save Sea Fever from being underwhelming. The characterisation exhibited by the crew members is excellent and there is a genuine, believable warmth to their exchanges. Particularly noteworthy are Freya (Connie Nielsen) and skipper Gerard (Dougray Scott), the husband and wife team who are forced to take their ship into dangerous territories in order to ease their financial worries. The situation they ultimately find themselves in and the way that it progresses is a little by-the-numbers, but their responses feel grounded and realistic, and their decisions weighty.
Sea Fever is a competently produced but ultimately uninspiring tale of peril at sea. The stellar cast do an admirable job of breathing life into the story, but it’s a shame that their circumstances aren’t more original. The direction and visual style are top-notch, but the overarching plot is something that we’ve seen a few too many times before.