There’s been a quiet but proud tradition over the last 20 years or so of wrapping very adult dramatic themes around sci-fi or horror concepts.
The little-seen Perfect Sense, which starred Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as a couple trying to fall in love in a world ravaged by a disease that gradually cripples the human senses one by one, was as emotionally deep and heartfelt a love story as you’d care to watch. Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was sublime – even though the premise is unmistakably science fiction, there isn’t a flying car or laser gun in sight.
The grand poobahs of the movement are the writer/director team of Mike Cahill and Brit Marling. Their films Another Earth, I, Origins and current streaming release Bliss (written and directed by Cahill without Marling’s involvement) all deal with people suffering some sort of loss or emotional damage, amazing phenomena like an identical Earth appearing in the sky or the scientific proof of reincarnation just frameworks upon which very human stories about love and second chances take place.
As a subgenre, it suits the idea that what we as audiences are really interested in is characters and stories rather than CGI spectacle. And like similar films, you could watch a single scene of Little Fish and have no idea it involves a sci-fi apocalypse.
So, like other directors in this narrow field, Chad Hartigan has only to get the casting right, give the script by Mattson Tomlin a bit of lyrical flourish and present a global disaster viewed through the lens of two people who are in love but terrified, and he does so beautifully.
We meet Emma (Olivia Cooke, speaking in her native Manchester accent for what feels like the first time on screen) sitting on a desolate beach crying softly. Her voiceover tells us that the first time she met her soon-to-be boyfriend Jude (Jack O’Connell, a bit more grown up and scruffy but whom you might recognise from Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) she was sad but couldn’t remember why.
Jude seems to be walking a friendly dog that takes a shine to Emma, and before long we see scenes of them spending more time together, drawn together even though Emma’s already in a relationship, and in short order they’re married and living in a state of romantic bliss in Jude’s native Seattle.
But the shadow that’s fallen across the world is a pandemic that attacks the neurons of the brain and starts to gradually wipe out both semantic and episodic memory. Like Alzheimers, we’ll start to forget who our loved ones are if we come down with it, but (worse in a whole other way) we forget the basics as well. When Emma and Jude are catching the bus home one day the driver suddenly stops, opens the door and simply walks away, having forgotten his directions.
As things get worse the pair hunker down, hoping they can hold themselves together until the authorities do something (there’s already talk of an experimental vaccine) but the world around them doesn’t make it easy. In her job as a vet, Emma’s days consist of changing the number of days above the cages of lost dogs, counting them down until she has to put them to sleep because their owners have forgotten them.
She calls her mother back in the UK, promising she’ll try and get to see her despite global travel bans not only to contain the virus but in case pilots forget how to fly in midair.
And their best friends Ben (Raúl Castillo) and Samantha (Soko) are crumbling. Ben lives for his music but has forgotten how to play, and one night Samantha calls them in a panic because he’s forgotten who she is, thinking she’s an intruder and pulling a knife on her.
In one sense the premise of the virus and the erasure of memories is a foil for Hartigan to play with the chronology of facts and events. The last scene loops back in on itself, takes you right back to the beginning and makes you realise Emma might have been the most unreliable of narrators without even realising how far under the spell of the virus she’s fallen.
The script (based on a short story) pretty cleverly mirrors the way memory falters, crumbles and gets mixed up by jumping back and forward in time, showing us the progression of Emma and Jude’s story out of order – maybe the way Emma is recalling her memories to tell her story even as she’s gradually losing them.
And the visual mise en scene props up the confabulated delivery. It’s all done using the language of indie drama with long, languorous takes, shots over the shoulders of characters as they walk dark streets or desolate locales, woozy cinematography and soft, warm edges.
Everyone is more than fine but it’s Cooke that stands out. With her large eyes and face that veers between looking constantly worried and lighting up like a star when she smiles she’s certainly pretty, but she also expresses a gamut of emotions with just a flicker of her eyes, and you believe wholeheartedly in her fear and hope.
Coincidence that a movie about a global pandemic is being release under the shadow of COVID? Maybe, but instead of reminding you of the state of the world right now, Little Fish reminds you why we do almost everything we do, and the people we do it all for.