Retrospective: ‘The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou’

In the past, I wouldn’t exactly call myself the biggest fan of Wes Anderson’s work. But, as the years go by, I find myself gravitating more towards his unique style of filmmaking. There’s just a certain sense of whimsy that’s present throughout all of his films, which, in these times, I welcome more than ever. So, I took some time to familiarize myself with the rest of his filmography and found The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou to be one of the most inspired and underappreciated films in his entire catalogue.

The Life Aquatic brilliantly incorporates elements of stop-motion animation to create a unique aesthetic that’s further expanded upon in his later films (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs). Released in 2004, the film flopped at the box office with a budget of 50 million dollars and ultimately grossed around 34.8 million. Even though it received mixed reviews at the time (it currently holds a score of 62 on Metacritic), the film now holds a cult following with many critics looking back on it fondly as one of the filmmaker’s most unique titles.

Inspired by the work of renowned undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, the story follows a nautical expedition team lead by Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou, a self-absorbed oceanographer in search of revenge for his fallen friend and longtime partner, Esteban, who was eaten by the elusive “Jaguar Shark.” At the premiere for his latest documentary, he meets a man named Ned (Owen Wilson) that claims to be his son. At first, Steve is hesitant to interact with him, but he soon takes a liking to the young man and invites him aboard his ship — the Belafonte — so he can join him on his dangerous voyage.

The expedition team is made up of a colourful cast of characters. The members of the crew include Willem Dafoe, who delivers a brilliant comedic performance as Klaus, the loyal first mate. Cate Blanchett is a pregnant reporter that’s writing a story on the journey; there’s Steve’s estranged and disinterested wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston); Pelé dos Santos, a Brazilian singer that spends his time performing covers of David Bowie songs; a couple of interns that are exploited for free labour and plenty of other eccentric characters. Jeff Goldblum is also featured in a noteworthy role as Steve’s rival.

What follows is a wild journey across the seas, filled with challenging scenarios that test the crew’s relationship and loyalty along the way. What struck me the most was the overall presentation of the film. The vivid colours and symmetrical compositions in each frame are as engaging as the story itself. The charming aesthetic adds a lot of personality to the film as well as the thoughtful way that each scene is carefully crafted. Incredibly, the Adidas shoes worn by the crew are so iconic they actually got released for general sale. The characters are meticulously placed in enclosed areas throughout the ship, which could feel claustrophobic in any other film, but here it serves to highlight the imaginative world that exists within the very ship.

Speaking of which, the ship itself plays a huge role in the film as well. Consisting of an elaborate set made up of several different rooms, it’s hard not to be amazed at the continuous shots that follow characters around as they move in and out of each room. The facilities found inside the ship are pretty impressive. There’s a laboratory, a research library, a technologically advanced kitchen, and even a sauna. There’s also a submarine, a helicopter, and two dolphins that serve as underwater lookouts.

For the most part, The Life Aquatic holds up remarkably well, even if there are moments that caught me completely off guard. There are several instances of characters casually throwing around homophobic slurs for comedic effect. Now, those moments have not aged very well and remind me just how different the social climate has changed since the early 2000s. But other than that sad reality check, the film is still as enjoyable as it ever was.

Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Michael Gambon, Matthew Gray Gubler, Waris Ahluwalia, and Leonardo Giovannelli in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

The whimsical tone and stylized presentation, combined with the mature subject matter, give the film a timeless quality that’s pretty hard to come by in most films at the time. A large part of the film’s charm comes from Bill Murray, who turns in a magnetic performance that showcases all of his comedic talents in full effect. His dry delivery blends in perfectly with the film’s unique brand of comedy while giving him enough room to insert his own nuances and inflexions to the role.

Compared to his previous films, The Life Aquatic serves as a turning point in Wes Anderson’s filmography and sees him experimenting more with special effects, complicated sets, and an ambitious scope for the film’s narrative. It’s just a mesmerizing film to watch, and the twists and turns it takes never seem to be too far-fetched or out of place in the logic of the world that’s been established.

This is the work of an artist with a clear vision in mind — and it’s a joy to behold. That said, it’s hard to imagine why so many critics found The Life Aquatic to be a subpar entry in the director’s catalogue at the time. The film features the filmmaker’s signature style, comedic tone, as well as the inventive visuals that have been praised in later films, such as Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. So, it’s not surprising that a number of critics would go on to reevaluate their initial reviews over the years.

There are even some surprisingly poignant moments that stand out amidst the quirkiness that permeates the entire film. One of which is in the form of an extended underwater sequence that showcases the beauty and wonders of the sea through the imaginative visuals that are made possible by the inclusion of stop-motion animation. All in all, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a shining example of the unique experiences that cinema can provide, so if you’ve yet to experience the wonders of this film, then do yourself a favour and get on board.

Words by Kai-Ming Chow

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