Sea Fever (2020)

One of the most rewarding aspects of genre filmmaking is the way it liberates artists to accept that there truly is no story that hasn’t been told before, so why even bother. All a contemporary storyteller can really do is make a well-worn narrative feel fresh with new contexts & details, focusing on discovering new textures instead of inventing new structures. That conundrum is true across all media but feels blatantly out in the open for genre films in particular, which are entirely built on repeating & mutating already established storytelling patterns. This year’s aquatic horror creep-out Sea Fever is a prime example of how effective that kind of detail & context variance can be in a story we’ve already seen a thousand times before, chilling its audience with an eerily well-timed mutation of a very familiar genre template. There is no way writer/director Neasa Hardiman could have known how unnervingly of-the-moment her film would feel in the extraordinarily bizarre year it seeped into wide distribution, but that’s the power of genre movies at large. They allow filmmakers to look at old stories from new angles to unlock their full, evolving potency.

In Sea Fever, an Irish crew of deep-sea fishermen violate Coast Guard regulations to seek a bigger catch in whale-populated waters. However, their rickety trawler is thwarted by a much larger creature than a wayward whale. It’s caught in the bioluminescent tendrils of a gigantic, Lovecraftian sea monster that pumps the already dilapidated boat with a dangerous organic toxin. It first appears that a clear green hair gel is seeping through the walls of the ship, a mysterious substance that quickly contaminates the crew’s fresh water supply. That toxin is gradually revealed to be a parasite that causes madness (and eventually a gory demise) to anyone infected, putting everyone onboard at risk both by parasite and by fellow crewmembers. To stop this parasite from spreading to uninfected citizens ashore, the crew must quarantine themselves on the trawler for its full incubation period before seeking safety – a directive that puts the biology research student onboard (Hermione Corfield as the film’s lead) at odds with the working class fishermen who normally crew the boat. I shouldn’t have to explain how that internal conflict over whether or not to inconvenience yourself in quarantine to protect the mass-population outside is relevant to the current COVID-19 pandemic the world was suffering when this film happen to finally hit VOD platforms this Spring, but it does sting hard once you get there.

It’s easy to tally the familiar genre tropes & iconography Hardiman reshapes for her own purposes here as they populate onscreen. A working-class crew being hunted by an unconquerable creature on an isolated vessel while staving off the madness of social isolation is immediately reminiscent of the Alien franchise. The monster itself is distinctly Cronenbergian in its menacing sexuality, particularly in how its semen-shaped tendrils pump toxic goo into the trawler through pulsating anus-shaped orifices; it’s as upsetting as it sounds. The most overwhelming influence here, however, is John Carpenter’s The Thing, especially once the gooey, seminal parasite has infected the crew’s water supply. Their already maddening, combative period of quarantine is amplified by the crew’s paranoia of each other and constant need to inspect their fellow victims for traces of infection. The movie stops short of deploying a Kurt Russell type with a flamethrower to strap his fellow crewmembers to a chair for involuntary parasite checks, but it’s not far off from going there. And even if it did, the timing of its arrival during the COVID-19 pandemic and the psychologically upsetting details of its monster invader would still have been more than enough to distinguish it as a worthwhile Thing revision. That kind of pattern repetition & mutation is exactly what genre filmmaking is all about.

I was a little hesitant about Sea Fever‘s potential in its early stirrings, as the limitations of its budget showed in the first few scenes’ imagery & dialogue. Once its central conflict got cooking, though, I was genuinely chilled by the experience, especially once it hit a heated debate about the personal sacrifice of quarantining yourself for the greater, communal good. It was nice to see a scientist positioned as the hero in that debate for once, something I took time to note even while squirming in discomforting resonance at the thought of the film’s invisible, lethal enemy within. If you’re looking for a variation on The Thing that resonates with a particular of-the-moment clarity in our current self-isolation limbo, Sea Fever is eager to crawl under your skin. That effective variation on a familiar genre classic is even more impressive once you consider how little impact the better-funded, better-distributed aquatic horror Underwater made earlier this year with a ton more resources at its disposal. The major studio entry in the aquatic horror genre was passably entertaining but did little to rework its familiar elements into something freshly exciting. By contrast, Sea Fever committed even harder to appropriating familiar genre elements and swam away with something incredibly disturbing & of-the-moment, an exciting achievement for a low-budget contender in the fight.

-Brandon Ledet

Underwater (2020)

One warm night outside The Broad Theater in July of 2017, we were chatting with friends who happened to attend the same screening of the psychedelic gem Funeral Parade of Roses as us. When asked about what they’ve been up to lately, a buddy groaned that they were working on “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart” that was in production. For the longest time, I was struck by the dismissive tone of that complaint, as if they were currently working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3 instead of the coolest-sounding project to ever be greenlit. I immediately began salivating over the prospect of watching KStew square off against deep sea monstrosities in a schlocky creature feature, an excitement I’d have to hold onto for three years as the movie suffered a series of post-production delays. And now, having experienced the final product myself, I can look back to see that our buddy’s nonplussed attitude was probably the more appropriate level of enthusiasm. It turns out that the Kristen Stewart deep-sea monster movie is just okay, nothing to dork out about.

Like last year’s Captive State, Underwater feels like the exact kind of generic sci-fi schlock that usually goes straight to VOD streaming platforms but somehow instead broke free to wide theatrical release. Everything from its vague title, to the over-explanatory newspaper headlines that provide its opening-credits exposition (“REALLY BIG DRILL,” “DRILL REAL BIG”), to naming its corporate villain Titan Industries, feels like the bargain brand facsimile of a Real Movie. The only distinguishing factor at play that signals this is a proper Hollywood production is the presence of a few over-qualified actors. In the cases of Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel as the central heroic duo who wage war against invading sea monsters, the overambitious casting is a blessing that elevates the material. In the unfortunate case of human colostomy bag T.J. Miller, it’s a curse. It should be noted to all concerned that Underwater’s T.J. Miller problem is a major problem. His character’s comic “relief” is constant for the entire time that he remains alive (far too long) so that he never fades into the background enough for you to forget that you’re watching a movie that stars a known abuser. I will forever love KStew’s unshakable sense of detached cool, but it’s not enough to cover up the stench of Miller’s obnoxious presence here, no matter how gruesomely he dies when his time comes.

As with most deep-sea aquatic horrors, Underwater mostly functions the same as any post-Alien spaceship thriller. It just skips a lot of the usual atmospheric preamble to jump right into its monster action. We open in a corporate Hell-future where Stewart & crew are working at an oil facility that mines directly into the ocean floor with seemingly the world’s largest drill. This fracking experiment throws our heroes into immediate crisis before we even get to know their names. Stewart teases a pensive, jaded narration track as if we’re about to watch a calm mood piece, but her inner thoughts are immediately interrupted by the deep-sea facility being attacked from all sides by creatures unleashed from beneath the ocean floor. Using her elite hacking skills as a ship mechanic, Stewart navigates the crumbling facility by bypassing its failing computer systems to open & close jammed doors as she flees to safety. She picks up a small crew of survivors along the way (including the ship’s captain, played by Cassel) and scrambles to save as many lives as possible by trekking to a far-off bay of escape pods. This doomed mission includes walking outside of the facility across the ocean floor as the monsters swirl around them in the deep-sea darkness. Few survive.

All told, Underwater is a modestly serviceable, 3-star aquatic horror that’s only elevated by the casting of its leads, the last-minute escalation of its monster mayhem, and the novelty of giving its creatures the same fracking origin story that Monster Trucks gave Creech. Setting its crisis on the ocean floor was smart in a few ways, as the darkness allows for a few moments of surprise and conveniently hides its cheap-end CG effects. Unfortunately, it also makes the film resemble far too many deep sea & deep space creature features that precede it – ones that don’t star T.J. Miller. For the movie to truly distinguish itself in any significant way, it would’ve had to make some grand gesture to break free from its subgenre’s expectations: a found-footage framing device, a “one-shot” editing gimmick, a last-second tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise, something. Instead, its monsters just get bigger & more plentiful until it’s over, delivering exactly what you’d expect from “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart.” I thought that novelty would be more than enough to swoon over, but it turns out it’s just enough to pass the time. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet