To many The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (henceforth known as The Life Aquatic) is Wes Anderson’s creative and commercial misfire, but to others (Movies In Focus included) it’s the writer-director’s forgotten masterpiece. This 2004 release includes Anderson’s usual precise visual style and tropes about broken families and distant fathers, but this time he opens the scope taking the tale to the high seas and turning it into an action-adventure in the process.
Bill Murray is the titular Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-like filmmaker and oceanographer who is passed his prime and seen as something of a joke by his peers. He sets out on a mission to track down a ‘Jaguar shark’, the rare beast which killed his best friend, Esteban. He travels with the motley crew of the Belafonte (which includes Willem Dafoe and Noah Taylor) along with a man who may (or may not) be his illegitimate love-child (Owen Wilson) and a reporter (Cate Blanchett), who brings her own set of problems.
The Life Aquatic sees Wes Anderson building on the groundwork laid in his first three films (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) to deliver a bold vision and a large budget that only comes with success. Anderson’s stylistic ticks are all present and correct and he throws in some stop motion animation (courtesy of Henry Selick) to create a visual feast that plays like a dusty old edition of a National Geographic which has been littered with children’s drawings of fantastic sea creatures.
The tone may be broad, but Anderson’s film plays with a lot of heavy moments which are dealt with subtly. Zissou’s relationship with his long-lost son are handled well by Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, with both men showing a rather impressive range in any given scene. Everyone in the cast is great – Willem Dafoe is rather excellent as an over protective German, Jeff Goldblum shines as Zissou’s enigmatic arch-nemesis and even Bud Cort gets a special moment as ‘the bond company stooge’. However, The Life Aquatic is Bill Murray’s show and he’s perfect. Like many Murray roles, Zissou isn’t a likeable man but we’re made to like him by how Murray unfolds who he is. It’s a remarkable piece of work and one of the best performances of Murray’s career which has sadly been overlooked between the Groundhog Days and Lost In Translations. The Life Aquatic is the ultimate Bill Murray vehicle.
Anderson’s Euro-flavoured film is littered with a multitude of things to recommend – from Seu Jorge random rendition of David Bowie songs in Portuguese to the stand-out sequence which sees Zissou and his crew mount a rescue mission against pirates on an abandoned hotel resort. The Life Aquatic is an auteur playing at the top of his game, crafting a cinematic experience like no other. His unique style may turn some off, but if you surrender to his world then his films are rare cinematic gifts that fill you with the same type of joy that you get from immersing yourself in a great novel.
A true masterpiece, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is a wonderful piece of cinema. It sees Wes Anderson crafting an experience like no other and showing blatant disregard for convention and the rules. It’s a $50 million art movie with an A-list cast that offers a treasure trove of delights for those willing to climb aboard and I can’t recommend it enough.
The Criterion blu-ray of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is phenomenal.Want a quirky commentary from Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach? You got it. An in-depth documentary on the film’s production? Check. Deleted scenes? You got it. Interviews with cast and crew? You bet. Want more of this Portuguese Bowie songs? You’re welcome.
If you don’t already own this film, what are you waiting for?