The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

Directed by Wes Anderson

“Son of a bitch, I’m sick of these dolphins.”

The Disc

A quirky, colourful cover squeezing the whole cast into one of Zissou’s underwater craft, the disc includes a commentary, deleted scenes and stills gallery.

The disc also includes performances of David Bowie songs in Portuguese by musician and cast member Seu Jorge (misspelled on the cover as Sea Jorge – I’d like to think it’s an intentional nautical gag, but suspect not), and it’s the first disc I’ve seen that outright says it has Easter Eggs hidden on the disc.

Why Did I Get This?

I loved The Royal Tenenbaums when it came back, and its soundtrack too. I also love David Bowie, so it was pretty much a dead cert I’d be giving The Life Aquatic a shot.

To be honest, I don’t remember buying it on release, but I definitely saw it at the time. Whenever I bought it, I haven’t revisited it since, so it’s probably been 15 years since I saw it. I don’t remember exactly when I went off Anderson’s style, but I was really pleasantly surprised by The Grand Budapest Hotel and dug The Fantastic Mr Fox too, so it’s definitely time to give it another spin…

The Late Review

The Late Review is a detailed look at the film so if you want to avoid spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

Steve Zissou is a world-famous underwater explorer and oceanographer whose oldest friend died on his most recent expedition, killed by an unseen creature he dubbed the Jaguar Shark. Struggling to remain relevant in a time when his films aren’t viewed with the wonder they once were, Zissou accepts funding for his next expedition – a revenge mission to locate and kill the Jaguar Shark – from a man who claims to be his long lost son.

Opening with the premier of the latest episode of The Life Aquatic playing to a less-than enthusiastic crowd, we’re given pretty much everything we need to know about Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), in that few minutes of 1970s-esque documentary footage. He’s a vain man, a self promoter who will risk the lives of others in the pursuit of the advancement of underwater knowledge (and his own career), but through conversations with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, quiet, intelligent, icy yet affectionate), and business manager Oseary (Michael Gambon – wearing the only octagonal frames I’ve seen outside a Bond film), we discover he hasn’t had a hit film in nine years and is struggling to get funding for his next instalment.

At the after party, a slightly stoned Zissou is introduced to Kentucky pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) – the son of a woman Zissou once knew. There’s a good chance Zissou is his father, he says, and he wanted to meet him. Zissou is relatively unfazed by this and invites Ned to his island, then to join him as part of the crew of his boat, the Belafonte.

The Belafonte itself is a thing of worn beauty – looking well-used and beaten but also deliberately artificial and fitting perfectly in a Wes Anderson style. Here’s the cross section of the ship built full-size for the production…

The cross-section set is used a few times in the film, to great effect – once the camera glides throughout the various decks and rooms to take us on a tour of the vessel (which includes a steam room, editing and recording studio and well-stocked library, naturally), and again late in the film as we follow Zissou and Ned through countless rooms during an argument.

It’s a brilliant touch, really – while Anderson draws your eye to the artifice of film, his characters are arguing about their lives being part of Zissou’s story, causing him to point out he’s making a documentary, just recording real life. Everything about the scene is a lie, and the director(s) are going to great lengths to prove that to you, but still, you’re swept up in the story, and by the time Wilson and Murray exit the set and we cut to them on deck in an actual harbour, suddenly everything’s ‘real’ again, so we can feel the father-son emotional wrestling that’s being done.

Yes, there are huge Moby-Dick undercurrents going on here. Zissou’s great white whale is the Jaguar Shark, but also his own feelings of mortality, responsibility, and acknowledging that maybe he’s just not the man he thinks he is. This latter point is helpfully brought up by pregnant reporter and Zissou fan Jane Winslett-Richarson (Cate Blanchett), who is along for the ride to write a feature on the fading action man.

Her inclusion on the expedition is welcomed by Steve as he hopes he’ll make the cover of her magazine and get his leg over while doing so, but Jane and Ned take a shine to one-another, and there’s a sweetness to their pairing that works really well, even if it does lead to Zissou blurting out some pretty bitter and unpleasant insults.

There’s an ancient maritime superstition that women bring bad luck on voyages, but throughout The Life Aquatic women are the voice of reason and intelligence – Jane’s introduction sees her correct Steve on the genus of jellyfish he’s looking at, there’s a great pull back and reveal gag in which Eleanor schools Steve and the whole crew on what their next move should be when the chips are down, and there’s intern Anne-Marie (Robyn Cohen), who begins the movie as a topless running joke but slowly becomes the voice of reason (and mutiny), on the Belafonte.

It pretty much goes without saying that the look of Team Zissou obviously owes an enormous debt to the work of Jacques Cousteau (who is at least name checked a couple of times in the script, albeit fleetingly and amusingly), but these are inspirations worn clearly and proudly on the movie’s metaphorical sleeves.

Like every Anderson film, it’s exquisitely shot – everything is symmetrical and very deliberately placed in the frame – though this becomes slightly less true as the film moves to locations like Zissou’s island and the abandoned hotel complex. Not that it looks any worse, just that the difference between the controlled environment of the studio and the dry, windy and often overcast islands which at some points seem to be shot on handheld camera too.

Notable from the opening moments of the film and continued throughout, whenever we’re shown clips from Zissou’s documentaries, they’re framed in 4:3 and treated to look like vintage film stock, as opposed to the ‘real world’, which is crystal clear and shot in 16:9. It’s the sort of nerdy filmmaker trait you might expect Anderson to indulge in, and you know what? It works really well.

The colour palette is typical Anderson too. Team Zissou wear powder blue wetsuits and red bobble hats – also a nod to the look of Cousteau – though Steve’s hat has a Smurf-like protrusion to the top of it unlike any of the others which seems to get bigger the further out to sea and away from land he gets. Paging Doctor Freud, eh?

Worth mentioning also that the film’s pastel colour palette extends to the fictional marine wildlife Zissou encounters throughout the film too.

These beautiful, stop-motion animated creatures created by Henry Selick (who created models for The Nightmare Before Christmas and Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox), blend perfectly with the otherworldliness of Wes Anderson’s film – the Crayon Ponyfish, Sugar Crabs, Hermes Eel and the Jaguar Shark look like creatures which should exist, but are just ever so slightly ‘off’. There’s a deliberate artificiality to them, in case you found yourself too invested in the ‘real’ themes of the story.

Just like Team Zissou’s world is at once recognisably our own while simultaneously being stuck in a vague facsimile of the 1970s, where state of the art computer equipment and vintage FM bunny ear aerials sit side by side, the sea creatures here are recognisably familiar yet alien. Again, it’s something of a staple of Wes Anderson’s work, but it works better with the stop-motion animals than the outrageously inappropriate homophobic and misogynistic terms Zissou throws around. Yes, maybe it’s in-keeping with his character (Murray is happy to act the asshole), but still, when these terms pop up, I found they hit me like a speedbump taken too quickly.

There are other elements which feel less Anderson-y too, such as the sudden violence which occurs when the Belafonte is boarded by pirates. Alright, the gunfight is played largely silent but for a tinny synthesised action tune lifted straight from one of Zissou’s documentaries, but seeing bloody wounds as a pirate takes a bullet in the neck and an intern takes a machete to the shoulder feels fairly out of place in such a whimsical film. Though Steve’s rip-roaring rampage of revenge as he clears the deck with a Glock wearing just a Speedo and a dressing gown is certainly memorable.

The subsequent rescue mission, as Steve and his crew raid an abandoned hotel complex to get back their studio bondsman and, reluctantly, his oceanographic and romantic rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), is similarly dark and feels unlike much of Anderson’s work – everyone’s running through grey, grimy undergrowth, the crew find shallow graves of Hennessey’s men, Goldblum takes a bullet to the chest, and they abandon a dog. Still, it works for the story, which was written by Anderson with Noah Baumbach, rather than his usual writing partner Owen Wilson – perhaps that could account for the difference in tone?

That darkness continues with an unexpected death, or at least a death I remember taking me by surprise when I saw it. Despite surviving almost drowning during training, being knocked unconscious by pirates, then storming their stronghold, Ned is killed when the helicopter he and Steve are flying crashes into the ocean. The crash itself is understated – Murray quietly says “this is going to hurt”, then everything goes silent, colours flash onto the screen, then we’re awake like our heroes, the water lapping over the lens, as the two men talk until we suddenly realise the water is turning red with blood and Ned slips into unconsciousness.

It’s sad, and touching as the men had just begun to share a real bond, but swiftly followed by a funeral at sea. Steve puts on a stoic face, but we’ve seen his relationship with Ned develop and the death hits him hard. But what we know, and Eleanor knows, is that Steve is incapable of fathering a child – Ned was not his son, but that’s now a secret she’ll have to take to her grave too. As Ned’s coffin plunges into the water, it passes Eleanor below decks – she watches through a porthole as it sinks, drags on a cigarette, and the look on her face says everything.

By the final act of the film, Zissou is broke and broken. He’s got nothing left but revenge, and despite previously swearing to let the Jaguar Shark live, following the loss of his career, his best friend, his son and his reputation, he’s determined to find some satisfaction in the creatures death.

And so it is the remaining crew board his submersible and head to the depths of the ocean to find this creature that to this point, only Zissou has seen.

At first, it’s nothing, just a vague, distant glimmer. But as it approaches, its full size and scale is revealed, and everyone on board the sub is in awe of such a vast, almost prehistoric creature. Again, it’s otherworldly, and made even more so by its arrival to the sounds of Staralfur by Sigur Ros – a beautiful, haunting piece of music that echoes Steve’s pain so well, but also the peace he finds underwater.

He decides not to kill it, but wonders aloud whether it remembers him. His voice breaks as the words leave his mouth, and all his insecurities, all his pain, everything he’s lost in the search for this beast becomes clear as he cries. This search has meant everything to Steve, and cost him dearly, but the creature will never have a concept of that.

Those around him reach out and offer their support as the shark passes the mini-sub, and honestly, it’s one of the most touching scenes I can remember from a Wes Anderson movie. In context, it’s beautiful, but here it is out of context for you to see for yourself.

Finally, we’re back on dry land, at the premier of Zissou’s latest film which is, of course, received with rapturous applause. He’s sitting outside the theatre though, but as his crew leave the crumbling Italian cinema and join him, a smile appears on his face, the opening bars of David Bowie’s Queen Bitch crunch onto the soundtrack, and it’s clear that Steve is a million miles away from where he started the story.

We also get a Portuguese language version sung by crewman Seu Jorge as the credits continue, as well as a disclaimer stating the family and estate of Jacques-Yves Cousteau were in no way involved with the making of this film – it feels like a Wes Anderson creation, but one suspects it was legally required.

Thoughts On The Film

Well this was better than I remembered, and a great showcase for Bill Murray, giving him comedy, pathos and even a little action to play with.

It’s very quirky, as you’d expect from Wes Anderson, but I reckon it’s probably one of his more accessible films.

That being said, it’s deceptively light. Sure, take it at its surface level and it’s a fun film about an ageing adventurer, but scratch just below the surface and there are some fairly heavy themes – father issues, abandonment, acceptance of ageing, mortality, to name just a few – bubbling just beneath the sight gags and animated fish.

I bought the soundtrack off the back of this, and would recommend the film and the music – though buyer beware, your enjoyment may vary depending on your level of quirk tolerance.

Also, while it initially feels a little crowbarred in, the Steve Zissou Adidas sponsorship and subsequent product placement actually works really well in the flow of the film and made me really want to own a pair of his branded trainers. Probably not enough to shell out £400 for them, mind.

Verdict

Really enjoyable, and there’s more to it than you might imagine at first glance. Despite that, it still manages to be light, sweet and occasionally laugh out loud funny.

Recommended, depending on your quirk tolerance levels.

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