Toronto Film Review: ‘Sea Fever’

A mystery force attacks an Irish fishing trawler in this vague yet uninspired quasi-sci-fi/horror thriller.

Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Connie Nielsen, Ardalan Esmaili, Olwen Fouere, Jack Hickey, Elie Bouakaze. (English dialogue.)

1 hour 30 minutes

Something — we never quite figure out what, where it came from or why — menaces the crew of an Irish fishing trawler in “Sea Fever.” This underwhelming thriller has a monster of sorts but otherwise seems so reluctant to embrace its genre roots that it barely feels like a horror film, or anything else in particular. Nonetheless, it’s a conventional buildup-to-process-of-cast-elimination suspenser that’s unfortunately low on actual suspense, let alone thrills or narrative invention. Some recognizable cast names and enough action to fill out a trailer should make this a viable acquisition item, but TV director Neasa Hardiman’s first feature will play as a slow night’s forgettable time-killer in any format.

A humorless, workaholic doctoral candidate in marine biology, Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) is assigned to accompany a commercial fishing boat and photograph its catch for any “abnormalities” as a field study. Her antisocial personality is one of several attempts here at character definition that raise preliminary interest, then go undeveloped. The personal awkwardness is compounded by that of the multinational six-member crew once they realize she’s a redhead, something that’s a traditional nautical harbinger of bad luck.

Still, things go well enough at first, especially as a very good fish haul eases the owners’ pressing financial worries. But unbeknownst to the others on board, including wife Freya (Connie Nielsen), skipper Gerard (Dougray Scott) found the catch by deliberately steering into a designated “exclusion zone” that’s been placed off-limits by authorities for unknown reasons. The characters get an inkling why when the boat suffers an apparent collision and what initially are assumed to be barnacles attach themselves to the hull, secreting a gelatinous substance straight through the wood.

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Offering to dive and pry them off, Siobhan discovers what’s really going on is that glowing, eel-like creatures that may be parts of a larger organism have disabled the ship. Ominously, another vessel is found nearby, its crew having met an unpleasant end. Our protagonists soon realize they’re at great risk of infection by egg-laying parasites that have infiltrated the trawler’s water supply. It seems unlikely they’ll make it back to civilization — and perhaps they shouldn’t, as they may now bear a mystery contagion.

Billed as an eco-thriller, “Sea Fever” doesn’t have any specific, tangible environmental message, save that you disobey the Coast Guard at your own risk. The film is competently acted and produced, but Hardiman’s script simply isn’t very interesting, gesturing in the direction of “Alien,” “The Abyss” and numerous other fantasy thrillers without summoning the directorial style, tense atmosphere, clever dialogue, offbeat characterizations or plot twists needed to render a routine overall arc memorable.

Despite some blood and violence, there’s nothing terribly scary about the invading entity. Is it simply a biological anomaly? Something supernatural? Extraterrestrial? The script doesn’t leave that question unanswered so much as plain ignored.

A more poetically handled film might have gotten away with such vagueness in service of metaphorical intent, but whatever its original intent, “Sea Fever” comes off as a familiar but lazy aquatic-peril thriller.

Some variable digital FX aside, the assembly is smooth if undistinguished.

Toronto Film Review: 'Sea Fever'

Reviewed at TIFF (Discovery), Sept. 11, 2019. Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: (Ireland-Sweden-Belgium) A Fis Eireann/Screen Ireland and Epic Pictures Group presentation in co-production with Film I Vast, VOO and Be TV in association with Creative Scotland, Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, RTE, Creativity Capital and Flexibon Films of a Fantastic Films production. (Int'l sales: Epic, Los Angeles.) Producers: Brendan McCarthy, John McDonnell. Executive producers: Patrick Fisher, Jonathan Feuer, Patrick Ewald, Shaked Berenson, Lesley McKimm, Peter Possne. Co-producers: Jean-Yves Roubin, Borje Hansson, Eddie Dick.

Crew: Director-writer: Neasa Hardiman. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Ruariri O’Brian. Editors: Barry Moen, Julian Ulrichs. Music: Christoffer Franzen.

With: Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Connie Nielsen, Ardalan Esmaili, Olwen Fouere, Jack Hickey, Elie Bouakaze. (English dialogue.)

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