The opening scene of the new horror movie Sea Fever doesn’t leave much to the imagination; the first words heroine Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) says is “I don’t do joining in,” which describes everything there is to know about her character’s arc for the movie. She’s a brilliant scientist, but not great at making friends — which is guaranteed to cause some discomfort on her upcoming research trip on a small fishing ship.
For a ship in the middle of the ocean, the safety margin is incredibly thin, and the tension ramps up the moment things go awry. After steering into an off-limits area and being hit by an unseen, giant object underwater, the crew finds unusual creatures eating their way through the hull. Assuming it’s a barnacle, Siobhán dives to investigate, and finds out that they’re seeing the exploratory tendrils of a much, much larger creature.
The neon glow of the sea creature is ethereal and terrifying, far better quality in design and execution than most indie horror movies. But there’s more to the creature than just the bright specter waiting beneath the boat. As the crew becomes infected with the parasites spawned by the creature, they succumb in gruesome, inventive ways. Soon, they’re all snapping at each other, trying to decide who’s infected, and who’s just suffering from a stressful trip at sea.
As with many creature-features, the ship has a chance to turn around and save themselves, if only boat captains Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott) weren’t one bad haul away from losing the ship. Each of the ship’s crewmembers have a burden that keeps them from returning to shore. While the rest of the film doesn’t overcome the initial forthright approach to character development, the unfolding mystery of the new, deep-sea creature is more than enough to carry the movie.
Although Siobhán flirts with deckhand Johnny (Jack Hickey), their relationship, like her character arc, never reaches fruition. Siobhán doesn’t become much more than the stoic scientist archetype, although Sea Fever gradually reveals more about her bravery and strong moral compass. In spite of that messaging in the opening scene, her lack of connection to other people isn’t treated like a failing, just an aspect of her personality that influences her detached approach to investigation. It’s a nice change of pace to see a character owning this aspect of her personality without having to learn to overcome it. But that arc doesn’t necessarily work in Sea Fever, which relies so heavily on character interactions to develop the tension and mounting horror.
For most of the movie, Siobhán is paired with brilliant engineer Omid (Ardalan Esmaili), who helps her experiment with a number of ways of dealing with the parasitic incursion. Omid is more a plot-pusher than a well-developed character, but the back-and-forth of scientific and engineering solutions means his presence still adds a lot of interest to scenes with Siobhán. Even without a full character arc, her lack of camaraderie from her crewmates ultimately saves a great deal of lives, so it feels like her story pays off.
Some of the crew — especially Freya and old sea-hand Ciara (Olwen Fouéré) — are charmingly shady enough to make up for the overall lack of character growth. Other crew members fail to make any personal impact, because they have so little character outside of their grim backstories. That makes their deaths feel like inevitable checkmarks on the usual horror-movie list of fatalities, rather than the impactful moments of distress the movie seems to want them to be.
Director Neasa Hardiman has clearly drawn inspiration from some of the tenser, more paranoid sequences of John Carpenter’s isolation classic The Thing, but Sea Fever doesn’t have the fiery personalities or the spectacle of discovery to match its predecessor; The infamous blood-testing scene in The Thing is re-created in a sequence where Siobhán lines up the crew to check them for signs of infection. Although it’s tense, it lacks the burst of practical effects that makes The Thing so terrifying and memorable; the tension doesn’t break so much as it dwindles.
On the other hand, comparing a movie unfavorably to The Thing doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that it’s not as good as one of the best horror movies ever made. Seeing the infected crew members quietly resign themselves to death has its own emotional impact, one in keeping with Sea Fever’s focus on character-drive drama.
That drama doesn’t always have much backbone, but the stakes increase quickly as the terror escalates, and there’s rarely a dull moment. Viewers who are justifiably stressed about contagion and infection might not consider Sea Fever the right kind of light evening viewing. But for people who can handle the strong quarantine vibes, Sea Fever is a solid, engaging creature mystery.