I fell hard for Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever back in the fall when it premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, but I’ve come to respect and appreciate the creature feature even more re-watching it in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The movie stars Hermione Corfield as Siobhán, a brilliant young scientist who reluctantly spends some time at sea in order to complete her doctorate. She’s assigned to the Niamh Cinn-Oir, a fishing trawler that’s in a very tough spot. They’re strapped for cash and desperate for a big haul. They pinpoint the perfect spot for a big catch but unfortunately it’s in an exclusion zone. But that doesn’t stop the ship’s skipper, Gerard (Dougray Scott), from going there regardless.
It probably goes without saying, but things get a little crazy and bloody from there. I highly recommend giving Sea Fever a watch but if you need a little more convincing before committing, check out my full review of the movie from TIFF 2019 right here. But now it’s time to say goodbye to those readers who have yet to see the film because we’re about to dig into some major Sea Fever spoilers here.
An important detail to keep in mind; Siobhán notes that her specialty is identifying and extrapolating patterns from variations in deep sea faunal behavior. (Think that comes in handy much?) Abnormalities start popping up as soon as the boat hits that supposed shoal. Something is changing the texture of the wood of the hull, and a jelly-like substance is oozing into the boat. When Siobhán goes for a dive, she quickly notices that it isn’t barnacles that are latched onto the Niamh Cinn-Oir but rather the tendrils of some sort of giant bioluminescent creature.
While they do manage to get it off, Siobhán knows that animals don’t catch something and then just let it go. It’s suggested that the creature could have been injured while they were trying to detach it which might have led it to secrete something defensive, perhaps a venom or a digestive substance. Whatever it is, that substance has made its way into Johnny’s (Jack Hickey) system thanks to his injured hand. Exhaustion is one thing, but when Johnny tries to go for a swim it becomes clear that his condition is much more serious. That’s when the eye-rubbing starts and Siobhán notices something swimming in it. Johnny washes his face in the sink, loses his vision, blood starts to fill his eyes and then they pop revealing a whole bunch of what Siobhán saw swimming in them – parasites.
Those parasites make their way into the water, sounding the alarm for poor Sudi (Elie Bouakaze) who was busy taking a shower. Sure enough, the parasites wind up coming through the shower head, right onto Sudi. They check Omid’s (Ardalan Esmaili) water filtration system and confirm that there’s no stopping them; they ate right though the steel. Siobhán insists on examining the water tank but she only gets a quick peek because as soon as they open the hatch, some of the substance jumps out. The new assessment is that they could be larvae, specifically saltwater larvae that are now stuck in fresh water, so one could assume that they’ll be dead in the next few hours. The next time they check the water tank, however, that’s not the case. Perhaps they’re weaker and there are fewer of them, but they’re still there.
Meanwhile, people have been tracking that jelly stuff all over the ship. Siobhán connects the dots and discovers that the same parasites that were in Johnny are in the slime as well, leading her to conclude that the creature mistook the boat for an animal. When it latched on, it produced a progenerative substance. How did that substance get into Johnny? His open wound, of course. And the big problem is, they’ve all got cuts.
They’re dealing with the spawn of a hadopelagic species, something from the deepest regions of the ocean, so Siobhán suggests that they might be able to kill the eggs with an intense UV light. That winds up not panning out, but then they pivot to electrocuting the ship using an ARC welder with sea water as a conductor and running a current around the boat. Siobhán suspects that the new plan worked, but this is also when she tells Freya (Connie Nielsen) that they can’t go ashore until they’re absolutely certain that none of them are infected. It took Johnny at most 36 hours from exposure so that means they have to wait 36 hours from when they destroyed the eggs to know if it’s safe. If they go ashore and one of them is a carrier, their condition will spread.
Freya is desperate to save Sudi, but Siobhán insists that they have to put the safety of everyone on the mainland first. But, as Omid asks Siobhán, who is she to say that Sudi must die so that someone else can avoid a risk? While that winds up being a non-issue for Sudi specifically, Siobhán is ultimately forced to sabotage the Niamh Cinn-Oir so it can’t go back to shore. As one might expect, everyone else is furious but Siobhán explains it’s not about them; it’s about their families. (Sound familiar?)
Ultimately Freya, Omid and Siobhán are our final survivors. Because Gerard opted to change course and told no one, there’s no way the Coast Guard will ever find them so Freya decides to find help using the rowboat. Omid and Siobhán then turn their attention back on the water tank. Apparently the parasites are still alive in the fresh water, but now it seems as though it’s just one animal. Turns out, there’s a reason why it seemed like there were fewer of them when they last checked the tank; they ate each other like tadpoles, and only one animal can win. So now the question becomes, how do they get the remaining creature off the ship?
Siobhán deduces that the life-form likes the deep cold so if they heat the water tank, that might slow it down. Omid asks if that could give them the opportunity to kill it but Siobhán says it’s actually so that they can safely return it to the wild. She insists that it’s their duty because it’s in the wrong place. It only wants to survive. They heat the tank and open it up, but in defense, the creature goes right through the hull. So now the ship is sinking. Omid and Siobhán set fire to the Niamh Cinn-Oir hoping to create a beacon and then attempt to board the life raft. Omid slips on the way down and is pulled under by the creature. Siobhán jumps in after him and removes the tentacle. When they get back into the raft, they spot lights in the distance but it’s too late for Siobhán. She’s infected. Omid tells her that there’s a chance she could be immune, but we all know where Siobhán stands on that matter; she can’t take the chance. She dives into the water and swims for the pulsating center of the creature.
That leaves Omid on the life raft, presumably about to be rescued and return home to his wife and his unborn child. As for Freya, we never find out what becomes of her but there’s a chance she too will be rescued and make it back to the mainland. Are either of them infected? We’ll never know.
The creature in Sea Fever is the ultimate test of human will. Yes, clearly there is something about the larvae that affects a person physically, but every single step of the narrative challenges the crew’s morality and character. First you’ve got Gerard’s blatant disregard for the rules; his needs come first no matter the consequences. There’s also the battle between cause and coincidence. While it might be easier for the crew to blame their misfortune on having someone with red hair aboard, the reality is, Gerard’s initial decision is what landed them in this position.
Then there are the symptoms of the infection. Not the eye-popping part, but rather the symptoms that mimic sea fever. The infection is highly contagious through water and cuts, but it’s also an infection of the mind as well. The condition compelled Johnny to try to jump overboard for a swim, but whether the larvae were in their systems or not, it also put the rest of the group in a state of panic. Who’s infected? Who should you trust? Will they run out of drinking water? And where do you draw the line between doing something for the good of the masses versus personal survival?
These are concepts that sting in a different way than they did back in September 2019. In my TIFF review I wrote that sometimes it’s easier to assess timely issues through the lens of a big screen thriller and now it’s hard to rewatch Sea Fever without connecting all of the dots to the current pandemic, particularly when it comes to the importance of self-isolation and the willingness to learn about what we’re up against. It’s only human to want to go out and make a living and one can understand the intense determination to reunite with family, but at what cost? And while we’re all eager to get a firm date to lift restrictions and go back to business, we’ve got to take the time to identify and extrapolate patterns to figure out the best course of action.
Sea Fever will always be a timely film as a story that highlights the respect we must have for our environment and for each other, but it’s hard not to view it as a microcosm of our current predicament, even with a bioluminescent creature at the center of it. Another point made in my original review still rings true – it doesn’t matter who you are on this boat or in the real world; if one individual doesn’t respect the Earth and the creatures in it, the ripple effect could be detrimental.