Sea Fever. 2020. Directed & Written by Neasa Hardiman.
Starring Hermione Corfield, Connie Nielsen, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, & Elie Bouakaze.
Fantastic Films / Bright Moving Pictures / Creativity Capital
Not Rated / 89 minutes
Horror / Sci-Fi
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains spoilers
Director-writer Neasa Hardiman had no way of knowing that less than half a year after she made Sea Fever it would become the microcosm of what we’re experiencing right now globally with the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardiman’s film is prescient in hindsight, in the most frightening kind of way. An oceanographer’s struggle at sea in an enclosed space is parallel to our current predicament being in self-isolation, some of us in full-on quarantine. Her struggle is amplified with a heady mix of sci-fi and horror elements, with a mythological twist, that hammers home a coincidentally realistic message.
Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) is a graduate oceanography student working on a thesis. Her boss pushes her to take a position on a boat run by its captain, Gerard (Dougray Scott), and owner, Freya (Connie Nielsen). The skeleton crew consists of Johnny (Jack Hickey), Omid (Ardalan Esmaili), Sudi (Elie Bouakaze), and Ciara (Olwen Fouéré). They’re not at sea long before strangeness strikes, and soon they’re looking at a potential viral outbreak amongst the crew. Siobhán tries her best to protect them all, but, especially as a newcomer in a tight-knit group, she finds it isn’t as easy as she might’ve hoped.
Hardiman echoes Ridley Scott’s Alien in terms of certain basic plot points— a crew in isolation dealing with their ship being infiltrated by a non-human entity and an infection tearing its way through the crew— and the whole premise isn’t an original one. She’s able to turn Sea Fever into something that doesn’t wind up derivative by infusing the story with Irish mythology, and also honing in on a gruesome, tragic tale of what community truly means. Sure, COVID-19 has made this more intense than it might’ve been a year ago. It was still real good when it ran during festivals in 2019. Regardless, Hardiman’s interrogation of humanity’s narcissism, and lust for capitalism, in the face of a threat that relies less on capitalist individualism and more on social/communal cooperation is as timely as it is terrifying.
“I don’t do joining in”
From the moment we meet Siobhán she’s presented as a socially isolated person. She finds more comfort in numbers and empirical scientific data than she does in human social interaction. This doesn’t bode well when her environment shrinks down to a boat. She lives in a city where she has her own work/personal space. Now she’s put into close quarters with strangers, a miniature version of a city. She has to either become part of the community, or remain isolated. Then, as soon as she starts to enjoy a sense of community, she’s thrust into a truly isolated existence with these other people on the water where they have to deal with a mysterious infection. They have to work together as a community, or perish scattered by themselves.
This is where our current global pandemic situation fits perfectly into an allegory.
In spite of the COVID-19 connections being altogether unintended, unless Hardiman has a crystal ball she’s been hiding, they are nonetheless all over the place in Sea Fever. Siobhán’s representative of those in the scientific community confronting the doubt of others when they have no choice but to sound the alarm. She tries to convince the crew they must quarantine themselves— she insists they shouldn’t go to port and instead ought to wait it out until they know they’re not infected, similar to the recommended 14-day period of isolation for travellers returning home in the face of coronavirus. But nobody’s listening. Just like now we’re facing Easter weekend and people are selfishly running off to church services, family gatherings, pool parties. During one tense moment, the captain yells at Siobhán in response to her quarantine recommendations: “Maybe you‘ve no life but we have responsibilities.” Captain Gerard joins a chorus of libertarians, conservatives, and Republicans treating COVID-19 like it’s no big deal, believing people like Siobhán— or the WHO and CDC— are being alarmist for no good reason. You almost expect, as we’re seeing on social media these days, for Gerard or Freya to lecture Siobhán on how they wouldn’t quarantine themselves for influenza.
Something the film does brilliantly is look hard at the narcissism of individuals when it comes to thinking about the greater collective good of our communities and society as a whole, which is proving to be one of the great tests during the COVID-19 pandemic. People are literally debating whether to allow human sacrifice for the economy on national news stations: the Aztecs tore out hearts and rolled heads down temple stairs, white right-wingers are asking that we let our grandparents die so we can all go back to work + paying taxes again. Similarly, Cpt. Gerard later reveals to his crew, conveniently long after the damage is done, that he made the decision by himself to go into an exclusion zone. He did it all in the name of good old fashioned capitalism, putting himself, and his crew, on the line to make a big payday. He’s also withholding crew pay until the next berth is over. Not only that, he wants to go back to land and potentially infect untold amounts of people because “we have responsibilities.”
It’s only Siobhán, whose job and her very being are committed to the natural world, who recognises the threat and much more serious cost to human life than exists a cost to our economy. She lays it out in simple terms: “risk the boat” versus “risk our bodies.” That’s a great, simplified idea about the pandemic we’re experiencing today: we either risk the boat [a replaceable, renewable economy] or we’re risking so much more that’s actually irreplaceable [literal human lives]. Siobhán does what feels is necessary in the end to protect the greatest amount of people possible, no matter how tragic the cost remains.
“I can’t change what I am”
Hardiman does well to include sailor superstitions in the screenplay. The earliest is when it’s discovered Siobhán is a redhead. Traditionally, pirates and sailors viewed having a redheaded crew member aboard was unlucky. Funny enough, there’s no mention of the age old superstition about women on board also being unlucky, prompting us to think about what superstitions, or myths, survive into the modern world (and why). Later, the superstitious belief that sailors don’t swim is touted. These two superstitions actually come full circle to be dispelled by Siobhán’s final sacrificial act. Most of all, it’s darkly comical that Gerard believes deeply in superstitions— which he seems to pick and choose, given there are several women aboard the ship— and refuses to believe the scientist when she warns of the infection’s seriousness.
Superstition comes off as false or hollow, yet myth thrives in Sea Fever. The contrast here reminds us that myths, as opposed to superstitions and prejudices, can be symbolic of actual events and historical realities. Myths can be misused and misrepresented like anything else. They can also serve a purpose. Freya herself embodies myth, her name derived from Norse mythology and the goddess of, among other things, death (though not in a dark way, she welcomed those who died in battle into her hall, Fólkvangr). She also named her ship Niamh Cinn Óir, after the mythic Niamh, a spouse of Oisín. Particularly, Freya appears to lean towards the medieval text about Niamh, in which the mythic woman was a mortal princess who eloped with Oisín and then committed suicide when her father’s army came to find her, or as Freya says, “gave herself to the sea.”
While Niamh makes a sacrifice in the name of love, refusing to be taken from her lover, Siobhán makes a sacrifice in Sea Fever, doing so in the name of community. Siobhán, like a hero of mythical strength, chooses to commit an act of bravery to benefit the greater good, at severe personal cost. And like Freya said lights beneath the waves were nature’s tribute to Niamh’s sacrifice, so does the ocean light up with the sacrifice Siobhán offers to the deep. It all comes back to Siobhán deciding community matters more than the individual, as opposed to her earlier refusal of social bonds. She’s an example of what’s necessary in moments of horrific crisis, a testament to the power of communal bonds.
We don’t have to physically swim into the ocean’s depths to help others. Neither do we need to give up our lives to save others, only in a figurative sense. Nobody’s saying that making difficult decisions for the future of our economies and communities is easy. The question is, what exactly are you willing to give up to help someone other than yourself? One of capitalism’s illusions is that of individualism, that it’s one person versus the next in a system designed to privatise interests on every level. This fierce sense of individualism pushes people further apart, convinced that any infringement on their lives that may be in the name of benefiting an entire community is an egregious affront to their civil and human rights. It’s what we see from Gerard and Freya when Siobhán recommends measures to protect people back on land, and it’s what we witness now every time some psychopath Republican suggests people flock back to work and stores and churches while there’s no end in sight yet to this pandemic— in the name of not letting the economy, a man-made construct, go to shambles.
Sea Fever is a solid enough infection horror film without COVID-19 making it the accidental pandemic thriller of 2020. Hardiman escapes being derivative of everything from Alien to 28 Days Later by combining ideas of communal struggle with mythological concepts. Her film hits familiar beats, and also creates its own. This story’s not about the effects of a pandemic, broken down to a microcosmic scale, on the people who get ill. Although there are nasty moments of body horror proportions, Hardiman instead looks at the effects of a pandemic on the people who aren’t ill, people whose decisions could very well make many others ill should they choose an irresponsible course of action. Siobhán, then, is our pandemic hero. She’s the one willing to make a prominent change in her own value system and perspective on the world in order to likewise make a significant, effective difference in that world. It’s time we all do the same, whether in the name of a pandemic, climate change, or anything threatening each and every one of us.