Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004)

Notable Festivals: Berlinale

Inducted into Criterion Collection 2005

With the the breakout success of RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), director Wes Anderson had claimed his place as one of the most prominent directors working in American independent film.  However, he was not simply content to stay there– his gaze was transfixed towards the ocean horizon, towards the endless adventures awaiting him in exotic international settings.  The strong performance of Anderson’s previous two features had earned him the clout to develop a long-gestating passion project inspired by the adventures of famed oceanographer, explorer, and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau.  Anderson’s regular writing partner, Owen Wilson, was unavailable to help him flesh out the particulars, having made a name for himself as an in-demand Hollywood star— thanks, ironically, to Anderson’s films.  Instead, Anderson turned to his filmmaking contemporary and personal friend Noah Baumbach, who was poised for a directorial comeback of his own with the impending release of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005).  After huddling together in a secluded booth of a New York City restaurant for months on end, Anderson and Baumbach finally emerged with a script for THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004), a classically Anderson-ian tale of deluded grandeur set on the high seas.  Producing once again under his American Emperical banner with his ROYAL TENENBAUMS team Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin, Anderson set sail for the Italian Riveria and Rome’s famed Cinecetta Studios with 50 million in his pocket, ready to make his biggest film yet.

Steve Zissou (Anderson muse Bill Murray) has cultivated a modest celebrity for himself as an adventurous oceanographer, explorer and nature documentarian.  He commands a small crew of collaborators and friends while sailing the seven seas on his trusty/rusty ship, The Belafonte.  When the curtain rises on THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, our hero is premiering his latest film at the prestigious Loquasto Film Festival– but it’s an empty victory.  During filming, Zissou’s best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was attacked and eaten by a gigantic jaguar shark.  The event has thrown Zissou into a deep funk that’s forced him to reckon with his legacy and his value in a world that no longer seems interested in him.  At the film’s premiere afterparty aboard The Belafonte, a young man approaches Zissou and introduces himself as Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), the long-lost son Zissou never knew he had.  Ned’s joining of Team Zissou re-energizes Steve, and he assembles his crew once more to track down the jaguar shark that ate his friend and blow it out of the water, “Moby Dick” style.  Thus Steve sets out his greatest adventure– one that will test his closest relationships as well as his innermost convictions as he pushes doggedly onward to reclaim his fading glory.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU marks Bill Murray’s third consecutive collaboration with Anderson, and his first as the headliner.  Delivered firmly within the recent deadpan serio-comedic phase of his career, Murray turns in a soulful, nuanced (but no less hilarious) performance as Steve Zissou, a highly fictionalized blend of real-life explorer Jacques Costeau and Ernest Hemingway.  This is frankly one of Murray’s best roles, nakedly exposing the aging actor as he tangles with the issue of fading luminance and irrelevancy in a world that’s left him behind– themes shared (and quite differently explored) in his other acting masterpiece of the era: Sofia Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003).  Murray flourishes under Anderson’s direction, giving us one of the most memorable and intimately soulful characters in recent cinematic history. As Steve’s alleged bastard son Ned Plimpton, Owen Wilson eschews the off-kilter braggadocio of his BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) and ROYAL TENENBAUMS performances for that of a refined, southern gentleman with a pencil mustache and a sedately deferential demeanor.  Ned is a pilot for Kentucky Airlines, sharing his (alleged) father’s passion for navigating vast expanses of blue space.  Anjelica Huston appears again for Anderson as Eleanor Zissou, Steve’s aristocratic wife whose family has become something of a reluctant benefactor to Steve’s ambitious schemes.  Cate Blanchett brings an altogether-different feminine presence to the film as Jane Winslet-Richardson, a pregnant journalist who has volunteered herself for the task of interviewing Steve for a cover story.  Blanchett is one of the medium’s finest contemporary actresses, fiercely dedicated to her role to the extent that she performed while actually pregnant in real life.  Granted, Blanchett’s performance here is one of her stranger ones– she projects a stubbornly focused air with a weird accent and a high-pitched voice, the intent of which isn’t immediately clear.

A few other Anderson acting regulars appear in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, like Seymour Cassel in a bald cap as unwitting shark-lunch Esteban.  As Anderson’s filmography has grown, so too has his stable of repeat performers– many of whom show up for the first time here.  Willem Dafoe plays Klaus, Steve’s unofficial sidekick (and an intense little Kraut).  Dafoe is responsible for some of the film’s funniest bits, and he’s often seen in the background doing small things that most people won’t even notice until their third or fourth viewing.  The endlessly watchable Jeff Goldbum plays Alistair Hennessey, a successful marine scientist and Steve’s de facto nemesis by virtue of not only being a direct competitor, but also being Eleanor’s ex-husband.  Goldblum plays his up natural confidence and charisma to a devilishly-cartoonish degree, positioning his talents as a natural asset within Anderson’s idiosyncratic aesthetic.

While his stories may always be told from a specifically Anglo-Saxon perspective, his casts have always been fairly diverse in ethnicity.  THE LIFE AQUATIC’s international backdrop affords Anderson to expand in this arena, and while perennial favorite Kumar Pallana doesn’t make an appearance, bit part actors like Waris Ahluwria and Seu Jorge are given a significant amount of screentime to rival that of their co-stars.  Ahluwaria plays Vikram, Team Zissou’s resident cameraman who diligently (and doggedly) captures all of the group’s adventures.  As the character Pele, Brazilian musician Seu Jorge spends the entire film playing David Bowie songs in Portuguese.  Perhaps more than any other singular aspect, Jorge’s Portuguese Bowie covers nail the particularly bohemian naval feel that Anderson is after.  Finally, Anderson’s co-writer Noah Baumbach makes a small, nonspeaking cameo as Philip, the silent lackey of Michael Gambon’s foppish producer character.

Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman reproduces the director’s signature anamorphic style onto the 35mm film frame with consistency, rendering the thoroughly-considered, cast-packed compositions in large swaths of bold primary colors (blue, red, & yellow) and faded pastels.  Anderson’s flat, two-dimensional sense of camerawork is also present here, which isn’t as boring as it might sound.  Indeed, Anderson’s inspired mix of pans, tilts, dollies, rack zooms and crane shots lend a great deal of energy and old-fashioned character to the film.  Like he’s done in previous works, Anderson counters these formalist techniques with New Wave touches like in-camera speed ramps and limited handheld photography.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU is arguably the earliest instance in Anderson’s filmography where his unique aesthetic actually becomes cognizant of itself.  There’s a deliberate, handcrafted feel to the cinematography that swings from inspired in one moment to contrived and indulgent in the next.  The overall effect suggests a cinematographic approach that’s perhaps too charming for its own good.  A theatrical stagecraft conceit has informed Anderson’s aesthetic since RUSHMORE, and Anderson uses the occasion of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU to embrace it as a major part of his approach.  It begins quite literally in the film’s opening during the festival sequence, where the 4:3 frame of Zissou’s documentary is bordered by the curtains of an actual stage proscenium.  There’s also a major setpiece that sees Zissou interrupt the story to walk the audience through the layout of his boat, The Belafonte.  We see the ship in cross-section, like those old books we all saw in elementary school.  By building only half the ship in cross-section, Anderson is able to use his lateral camera moves to create a two-dimensional exploration of the space, stringing the action along various rooms like a big live-action side scroller video game.  This vintage, lo-fi approach extends to the inspired use of stop motion animation for the various aquatic critters Team Zissou encounters.  Animation legend Henry Selick joins Anderson’s team, crafting imaginative twists on well-known oceanic lifeforms (like a paisley-patterned octopus and rainbow-colored seahorse).  Whereas other directors would simply turn to CGI, Anderson’s use of stop-motion animation falls right in line with his vintage aesthetic and sets him apart from his contemporaries.  The limited use of Selick’s iconic style of animation in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU sets the stage for the full-blown exploration of the technique in his animated 2009 film FANTASTIC MR. FOX.

Anderson’s references to Jacques Costeau and the presence of ocean-faring imagery go back as early as RUSHMORE, and with THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, he’s able to focus on the topic quite acutely, fleshing out his idiosyncratic obsessions into an entire imaginary world.  Towards this end, Mark Friedberg replaces Anderson’s three-time production designer David Wasco, but one would never know there was a switch judging by the design alone.  Here as in Anderson’s previous works, the characters dress in an eccentric manner.  For instance, Team Zissou alternates between slate blue wetsuits and pastel blue uniforms adorned with red caps.  Then there’s the character of Hennessey in general, a narcissistic sartorialist of the highest order.  The costumes, along with the set design and props, don’t equate themselves with any one particular time or place.  Instead, they exude a timeless feel that helps to maintain Anderson’s contained mini-universe while ensuring the graceful aging of the film itself.

Anderson’s regular composer, Mark Mothersbaugh turns in another archetypically Anderson-ian score, marked by percussive electronic synths employed in a baroque, classical fashion.  THE LIFE AQUATIC, like Anderson’s previous works, draws from a wide range of classic rock and roll music to establish its own distinctive palette.  This palette is fundamentally informed by both the spirit and the voice of David Bowie in particular, with the film using tracks like “Life on Mars” and “Queen Bitch” (in addition to the aforementioned acoustic covers sung by Seu Jorge in Portuguese).  The off-kilter swagger of Bowie’s music complements other flavors like Iggy Pop, Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Ros, and even a little Mediterranean-appropriate flamenco.

Just as the technical presentation of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU sees Anderson crystallizing his aesthetic into something immediately identifiable, so too does the film’s storyline deal in quintessentially Anderson-ian thematic preoccupations.  The drama of his stories always hinges along conflicting family dynamics, and THE LIFE AQUATICexplores the unique kind of combative relationships particular only to fathers and sons.  Ned Plimpton comes to Steve Zissou in search of a father figure, and while Steve welcomes him, he keeps the young man at an emotional arm’s distance.  He wants all the fun of being a father with none of the actual responsibility.  If anything, Zissou’s general poutiness and cavalier disregard for other peoples’ feelings might actually make him the child in the relationship.  Another major theme– sibling rivalry– manifests in Steve’s right-hand man Klaus coming to blows with Ned over the attentions and good graces of their fearless leader.  Despite the warm golden sunlight of the Mediterranean and Anderson’s bright, cheery visuals, a heavy air of melancholy hangs over the proceedings as Zissou grapples with the pain of death and loss, as well as the regret and heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams.

As his biggest film up to that point, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU shows a tremendous boost in confidence and skill on Anderson’s part.  However, the film did not perform as well as expected, both critically and commercially.  Even today, the film is beset by poor reviews that paint the “twee” surface aspects of the presentation as indicators of the young director becoming too aware of himself and/or losing his touch.  What the naysayers don’t account for is the long-lasting impression the film has made on pop culture– how else can one explain the reliable phenomenon of groups of friends showing up to every Halloween party clad in the Team Zissou uniform?  This is evidence of the film’s connectivity to something resonant in our shared human experience.  While Anderson himself might dismissively attribute the film’s quirkiness to a self-described “Italian phase, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU’s pivot to the international stage parallels Anderson’s stepping away from his humble Texas roots to become an artistic citizen of the world.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection


Written by: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach

Produced by: Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin

Director of Photography: Robert Yeoman

Production Designer: Mark Friedberg

Edited by: David Moretz

Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh

Animation by: Henry Selick