Aficionados of Wes Anderson’s previous films – Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – will know to expect the unexpected from his fourth and most ambitious feature, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. The film follows the seafaring escapades of famed oceanographer and documentary-maker, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Much like Jacques Cousteau, Zissou is known for his insightful documentaries about life under the sea, but he’s also a touch unconventional in the way he conducts himself, and the way in which he leads Team Zissou, his dysfunctional crew, distinguished by their red hats and Speedos. After a tragic mission in which is best friend and long time partner, Esteban, is consumed by a mysterious jaguar shark, rumors begin spreading that he has lost his professional edge. At the same time, he is approached by Ned Plimpton, a Southern gentleman and Air Kentucky co-pilot, who claims to be Zissou’s long lost son. With his reputation on the line, Zissou sets out to make his boldest film, one that will acquaint him with his son and simultaneously exact vengeance on the shark that ate his friend.
Aboard The Belafonte (Zissou’s boat, formerly a Second World War minesweeper) for the epic journey are Eleanor (Angelica Huston), Zissou’s brilliant wife and Vice President of the Zissou Society; German engineer Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe); Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), Zissou’s bubbly producer; Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), the resident physicist and composer; Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), the bond company representative; Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge), a Brazilian Safety Expert and classical guitarist; and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter covering the mission. Additionally, there are interns, a frogman, camera and sound guys, and a perennially topless script girl. Together, the team must overcome a variety of obstacles including pirates, kidnappers, Zissou’s arch-rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldlum), and bankruptcy before confronting the mysterious jaguar shark. And Zissou himself must overcome his own shortcomings to once again gain respectability.
Wes Anderson’s films are nothing if not different: artistically, aesthetically, musically, and emotionally. In The Life Aquatic, Anderson’s fourth feature, there is a team of misfit Jacques Cousteau types, there are imaginary sea creatures, Filipino pirates, and a soundtrack comprised of David Bowie songs performed in Portuguese. These quirks and cinematic styles are what make a Wes Anderson story unique – all you can do is sit back and admire the director’s imagination.
Utilizing the award winning artistry of Henry Selick (who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas), the underwater aquatic life is brought to life in marvellous iridescent color. Shunning the CGI animation we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, Selick returns to the techniques of classic stop motion animation. There are Day-Glo lizards, paisley octopi, golden barracudas, and electric jellyfish, not to mention the magnificent jaguar shark itself. Additionally, Anderson collaborated with production designer Mark Friedberg to bring Zissou’s habitat to life, using a model technique to illuminate a cross section of the Belafonte as if it were a stage piece with actors moving from room to room. And the Pescespada Island compound is a unique mix of 12th century castle, a swimming pool with a killer whale, a sea plane landing area, and of course, a ping pong table.
Anderson claims that the part of Steve Zissou was written exclusively for Bill Murray, and it’s a part that stretches Murray’s capabilities emotionally. "Don’t you guys like me anymore?," Murray’s Zissou asks dejectedly. It is a feeling of remorse as Zissou transforms from a self-centered egotist to a compassionate father and leader. Unlike other roles, this one puts Murray in a position of vulnerability, one where his character’s career and livelihood are slipping away and he must rise above to find something greater. Like Murray, Anderson intentionally challenges the other actors in different ways. Owen Wilson steps out of his rambunctious, hip stereotype ways to play a naïve simpleton; Willem Dafoe sidesteps his tough guy mentality and plays a buffooning German engineer; and Seu Jorge, who you might recall from City of God, swaps acting for an opportunity to showcase his musical skills.
Despite the uniqueness and artistry, the film has its faults: Anderson’s episodic style of storytelling makes the pacing a little uneven, and some viewers (as with Anderson’s other films) may find the tone a little hard to fathom. Standout scenes include an attack by pirates, an ad hoc rescue mission, and the tense submarine dive into the den of the jaguar shark, but the story inevitably rambles in places. In particular, the central character of Zissou remains something of an enigma: he wants to return to greatness, to avenge his friend’s death, to be a good father, and to be loved, but his methods don’t always seem to make much sense.
The Life Aquatic is a creative and imaginative adventure shot through with Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic style, mixing offbeat comedy with moments of touching pathos as Zissou searches for love, revenge, and redemption. The artistic quality, colorful imagery and attention to detail are typically impressive; but as with the director’s previous work, this is a film that will only appeal to a select audience, delighting his fans and undoubtedly baffling everyone else.