There’s going to be an understandable portion of audiences who will instantly reject the mere idea of watching the low-budget sci-fi horror Sea Fever, its gloopy tale of a deadly infection proving to be familiar, if fantastical, territory for this very moment. But beneath the shuddering use of words like “quarantine” lives a solid, slithering little B-movie, one that openly cribs from the blueprints of Alien and The Thing but does so with just about enough skill to warrant a midnight viewing, if not quite enough to justify itself at any other time of the day.
It’s the first feature film by the TV director Neasa Hardiman, who’s amassed an impressive set of credits on both sides of the Atlantic with everything from Happy Valley to Inhumans, a broad range of experience that gives her debut an accomplished smoothness. Her accompanying script is bit choppier, though, especially at the outset as we meet Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), an Irish marine biology student who tells us exactly who she is rather than letting us find out. Within the space of a few minutes, “I don’t do joining in!”, “I’m a good observer!” and “I need my own space!” are enough to clumsily tell us that she’s not exactly a fan of others, something that’s about to be put to the test with a week spent on a scrappy fishing trawler. Her presence isn’t exactly welcomed by the crew either, whose superstitions over her red hair have them expecting the worst for their trip out to sea.
But fears over an underwhelming haul of fish are soon replaced with something far greater as the boat encounters an otherworldly entity that starts infecting the crew. The infection is a grim one, parasitic in nature, manifesting itself in variously nasty ways (anyone with sensitivity over eye horror had best, ahem, look away). Siobhán must use her scientific intellect to figure out how best to survive.
It’s an age-old battle between human and nature as well as brain and brawn and while the two aforementioned classics definitely leave their mark (a testing scene is ripped directly from The Thing, and later, The Faculty), Sea Fever feels most closely aligned to 2017’s far superior monster movie Life. Both lay an intriguing amount of blame on the human invaders, both justify the creature’s quest as born out of a bid for survival rather than malice and both lead into a wider discussion of saving a group of lives versus risking thousands more. These are interesting issues to raise in a film such as this, but Hardiman rushes through her 89-minute debut a little too fast, and as a result the plotting and atmosphere suffer. It’s never quite as squirmy or claustrophobic as I’d hoped, despite the setting and the ickiness of the premise. While Hardiman does manage a handful of effectively nasty moments, they’re isolated rather than part of an incremental progression. As she enters the final act, her creaky boat threatens to capsize.
It’s kept just above water by an adept cast, led by a terse and practical Corfield as well as the experienced duo of Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen, who anchor the silliness, despite the latter’s bewildering attempt at an Irish accent. It’s a low-budget effort with high ambitions, something that’s hard not to admire, and while it often feels like the teaser for a bigger and better movie, it’s perhaps a sign that Hardiman is setting sail for Hollywood next.
Sea Fever is available to stream in the US on 10 April and in the UK on 24 April