This year, the Toronto International Film Festival was chock-full of lady scientists!
TIFF 2019 had a schedule jam-packed with some much-anticipated dramas and sci-fi titles with women in STEM at their heart. The Marie Curie biopic Radioactive was the festival's closing gala film, while movies like Proxima and Lucy in the Sky focused on women astronauts, played by Eva Green and Natalie Portman, and their respective battles against loneliness and the unique addiction of space. Even the tender French family drama The Truth featured a subplot featuring a movie about a woman going into space to fend off death.
One title that almost slid under the radar was Sea Fever. The feature film debut of TV director Neasa Hardiman, this Irish drama is more about science fact than fiction. The story centers on a marine biologist named Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), a socially awkward workaholic with little time for other humans. Against her wishes, she is coaxed onto a rickety fishing ship as part of a study on ecological sustainability. Accompanying her are the ship's crew, a warm but very traditional group of sailors, headed by Connie Nielsen and Dougray Scott. They're in need of a big payday after months of financial troubles and bureaucratic limitations put on the parts of the ocean they can legally fish. That eagerness pushes them into dangerous waters, and soon they come face to face with an unknown creature who threatens life on dry land as we know it.
It's easy to categorize Sea Fever as a sci-fi thriller. The film certainly encourages comparisons to titles like Alien and The Thing in crucial moments of tension involving its trapped crew and one very insidious monster who passes on a parasite that causes your eyes to explode! However, as outlandish as certain elements of the film may seem to general audiences, there isn't much in Sea Fever that could be readily boxed into the purely speculative.
The crew of the fishing boat are suitably superstitious regarding their upcoming journey and the stranger who has boarded their vessel. Siobhán is a redhead, which instantly puts them all in a state of unease, since redheaded sailors are considered highly unlucky. Sailors' superstitions are plentiful and have a long-held place in sailing culture. It seems as though practically everything was considered bad luck for sailors of yore, from touching the collar of a sailor's suit to having bananas on board. Depending on which part of the world you're from, mermaids are either lucky or a sign of incoming doom. Bigger sea monsters, however, are always a bad omen.
The most well-known example of giant sea monsters in sailor folklore is the Kraken. Originally found in Norse sagas, Kraken was typically characterized as a monstrously large squid that could grow up to 50 feet in length. It is thought that many of the legendary and documented sightings of Kraken by sailors, pirates, and the like were merely your regular run-of-the-mill terrifying giant squid, much in the same way mermaid sightings were thought to have been manatees. Mythology and superstition thrive on the unknown and our inability to figure out the undisputed truth. This is particularly easy to perpetuate with regard to ocean life because so much of our planet's depths remain unexplored.
According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 80% of the ocean remains unmapped and unexplored, in large part thanks to the costs and difficulties associated with deep-sea research. A 2012 journal published by Current Biology suggested that up to two-thirds of all ocean-dwelling life may still be undiscovered by humans. That's partly what makes Sea Fever so gripping: There's no reason to write it off as purely the stuff of fantasy. The basic trappings of the story may be firmly the stuff of sci-fi — a trapped group of ragtag survivors versus a monster of unfathomable strength and unknown origin — but everything else is eerily rooted in realism. The squid itself is not malicious in its attack. It is simply adhering to its instinct, which makes it all the more terrifying than had it been actively targeting these sailors.
The central hook to Sea Fever, however, isn't the monster but its very human protagonist. Siobhán is firmly a woman of science and reason, one who finds more comfort in her Petri dishes than the companionship of other humans. She's prickly and has no patience for basic social cues or the silly superstitions of the fishing crew. When the crew faces the threat of infection and very painful death, her response is coolly intellectual in the way audiences always hope for in a sci-fi movie. She doesn't panic or toss aside the obvious logical solution to the problem, even when everyone around her is more emotional, but not without reason. There are no bad guys in this movie, no sniveling goon who the audience wants to get eaten by the giant monster. Siobhán's logic may seem cold to others and their own apprehensions about her plan to quash the infection unreasonable, but there is empathy for everyone here.
Siobhán, in a sloppier movie, would probably be categorized as difficult or an "unlikable bitch," as we've seen all too often in stories like this. She'd be the emotionless scientist who doesn't understand how "real people" work and would die a pointless death so that the true hero can sail away to safety. For Siobhán, safety is in science, and it gives her the power to stay strong as the rest of the crew turn against her. They have their superstitions, but she has science, and both forces motivate the crew to different ends. Ultimately, through the giant squid and its parasitic infections, Siobhán finds a curious form of purpose, a way to combat the baseless fears of the crew who are better acquainted with myth than truth. What had been dismissed as a weakness by her peers — her lack of social interactions and obsessive approach to her work — becomes her ultimate strength in the face of potential chaos. In a genre where female scientists are still prone to being inept or making the simplest of mistakes for dramatic clout, it's refreshing that Sea Fever does not sacrifice its heroine's dignity or intellect for the sake of a few scares.
Sea Fever has a lot of ideas up its sleeve and executes them with real flair while refusing to overcomplicate the core of its conceit. It's always a thrill to see a new woman director make her mark on the medium with such impact, and even more so when the heroine she tells her story with can stand tall with the best of them. This is a familiar tale told in ways that refuse to adhere to our expectations, and it's all too real to dismiss as mere science fiction.
Sea Fever had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival and currently does not have a release date.