Pandemics, Posthumanism and Potentiality: Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever

Sara Ahmed[1] argues that institutions often attach failure to the individuals failed by them; the minoritised complainant who speaks out against discrimination is labelled as the cause and source of the problem. In order to maintain post-racial mythology (and elide the decolonising gaze), the complainant is stigmatised, silenced and excluded. Such conditions of social membership are central to Neasa Hardiman’s timely sci-fi Sea Fever (2019) where, after an outbreak threatens the lives of a ship’s crew, a female scientist’s responses to the pandemic are met with antagonism and denial by all but a Syrian member of the crew.

In Sea Fever, marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) embarks on a research trip aboard a fishing trawler run by a group of superstitious sailors. Despite their multicultural makeup, comments about her red hair and legitimacy as a crew member indicate a fear of difference related to her positionality as a neuro-divergent, middle class, female academic. Once out on the ocean their fears are realised as people start to die. Initially sea fever is blamed as the cause of erratic and suicidal behaviour but as time passes it becomes clear that the ship has become infected with parasitic micro-organisms (the larvae of a larger unknown creature Siobhán has begun to study) which in turn infect the crew. In order to prevent an international pandemic, Siobhán insists on a period of quarantine. Ignored and outvoted, she is left with no choice but to disable the trawler, sabotaging the remaining crew’s hopes of escape. Finally she is left alone with Omid (Ardalan Emaili), a Syrian war-survivor who came to Ireland with his wife to seek asylum and made Galway his home. Together they burn the ship in a final bid to eliminate the threat, nearly escaping on a dingy only to fall back into the creature’s lair. Sacrificing herself for Omid, an expectant father, Siobhán swims down into the creature’s embrace in the film’s closing moments.

Sea Fever’s horror imagery, colour/gender-blind casting and post-humanist empathy collectively work to evoke Alien, interrogating contemporary geopolitics and bioethics through a classic genre narrative. Extractivism, biocaptalism and the anthropecene are critiqued through the protagonist’s respect for the natural order and questioning of neoliberal ethics. Indeed it is the crew’s response to precarity which leads them to veer off course and into the creature’s path, prioritising profit over legal or moral concerns. While the ship represents the international community, it is restricted and isolated, ultimately triggering its own demise when the captain crosses into an exclusion zone in a bid to capture the haul which will prevent the collapse of his business.

The refugee crisis is referenced in the film’s final images; Omid is left alone on an inflatable waving to the coastguard for assistance as his former home goes up in flames. As the sole survivor he subverts the white exclusivist discourses of social Darwinism and post-apocalyptic ‘lifeboat logic’.[2] The opacity of a night water scene is broken by the clarity of the fire’s light, a chaotic eruption which refuses containment and closure. At the same time, the speculative realism of Siobhán’s final scenes renegotiates visual terms of engagement with the natural world, signalling the potential for new beginnings (as with the Afrofuturist space Drexciya), topographies and epistemologies. This illuminates the film’s metanarrative; the presumed superiority of one organism over another ultimately threatens the future of humanity, a crisis which can only be averted through the alliance of marginalised agents employing postdevelopmental, critically relational and posthumanist philosophies.

[1] Ahmed, Sara. Complaint! Duke University Press, 2021.

[2] Fiskio, Janet. “Apocalypse and Ecotopia: Narratives in Global Climate Change Discourse.” Race, Gender and Class, vol. 19, no. 1-2, 2012, pp. 12-36.

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