Film Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
A look into a often underrated movie gem.
The Life Aquatic (2004) was written and directed by American Director and one of my biggest idols/inspiration Wes Anderson, starring an impressive cast of big name actors like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchet and Michael Gambon.
The film is treated as a comedic, updated version of the classic Moby Dick tale and serves as a parody and more importantly homage to French diving pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I had the pleasure to see this film at a special screening with the girl who is now my amazing girlfriend where it was projected onto the rigging of a classic Sail Boat, a very memorable night!
I have chosen to review The Life Aquatic because Wes Anderson is one of my favourite directors and a massive inspiration to my own upcoming film career and since my own FMP (Final Major Project) is planned to serve as a homage to Wes Andersons work and I feel that some of the story and comedy elements in this film feel similar to what I have planned I thought it would be the wisest choice to go over the film in detail to analyse the cinematography, tone and humour that goes into a Wes Anderson and see which element I will bring into my FMP.
Plot: The film follows the journey of Ocean Photographer and Documentary maker Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson regular Bill Murray) on a quest for revenge following the death of his best friend at the “hand” of The “Jaguar Shark” and embarks on an illegal personal mission to hunt and kill the shark with the help of “Team Zissou” a group of dedicated Oceanographers containing a host of unique and memorable characters like First Mate Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), Pregnant reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) a man claiming to be Zissous son; all aboard Steve’s ship “The Belafonte”and cross Pirate infested waters, each other and other threats to find the “Jaguar Shark”, although not everyone thinks it truly exists.
Characters: For the characters I will be mainly be focusing on the two main characters with some mention on the supporting cast.
Steve Zissou: A very eccentric, passionate Oceanographer and Documentary maker however he posses a personality that while charming to watch can be hard to get on with and is near constantly quoting snappy quips and insults at whoever bugs him the wrong way. He pursues a romantic interest in the Reporter even though she clearly does not want to, his Ex-wife claims he is taking advantage of Ned by using his fortune from his deceased mother to fund the expedition and he deliberately breaks the law several times in the movie, so the movie makes it clear he is not perfect and he will do the wrong thing both my mistake and by purpose and that we don’t have to support every action he makes. However it is through great, hilarious dialogue;
(Ned Plimpton: I’m gonna fight you, Steve.
[Steve hits Ned in the face]
Steve Zissou: You never say, “I’m gonna fight you, Steve.” You just smile and act natural, and then you sucker-punch him. )
and the top notch performance of Billy Murray that has his traditional mixture of deadpan humour with bright charm and wit that Steve comes alive as a likeable character that is great fun to watch which is the key element needed for any main character. One thing I wish the character could have had was better character development and variety in emotions. There is some but very subtle and it’s hard to detect any big differences between Steve and the beginning of the film and Steve at the end despite all he’s been through like the death of the man he believed to be his son you’d think there would be a more noticeable change in personality from that. However there is a quite but lovely scene at the end that show’s Steve has lost some of his bitterness, he seems wearier looking yet still possess passion for his work and charm and during the scene where he finally finds the Shark we can clearly see the whole experience is making him break down in tears. These small but quite powerful scenes do a wonderful job of showing vulnerability to this man who otherwise acts aloof and eccentric.
Ned Plimpton: While less “larger than life” and more quite than Steve I find Ned a very interesting and good character who seems to have more internal conflicts in his life than Steve lets out. I feel he has more character development and variations in the way he interacts with everyone else than Steve and acts as a calm foil to Steve’s eccentric behaviour so having these two pair up is a nice touch as a comedic duo. He grows more bold as the movie goes on, in the beginning he is in awe of Steve because as a chid he regarded him as a hero but later on as he gains confidence he calls out Steve during his more “dick” moments and later fights back and makes peace with Klaus who at the beginning showed a clear dislike and jealousy for Ned. While he has less comedic lines and eccentric personality he is shown as the more level headed member of the group and more kind heated as shown through his relationship with Jane the reporter.
There is a good amount of mystery throughout the movie if Ned really is Steve’s son yet a lot of love, admiration and also distrust and complications is shown between the two. However the mystery is laid to rest in a otherwise low-key scene where Steve’s Ex-Wife tells Jane the Reporter in secret that Steve “Fires Blanks” a comedic way of revealing his infertility meaning he can’t possibly be Ned’s biological father. That reveal becomes heart-breaking later on when Ned shockingly dies before him or Steve learn the truth yet at the same time it’s heart warming that two complete strangers quickly regarded each other as family, offering a fairly strong emotional story arc to a otherwise brisk comedic movie.
Supporting Cast: This film has a huge array of supporting characters and while half of them don’t actually contribute to the plot they are just so charmingly presented with their own unique trait and do a good job of expanding the fictional world and they’re all very memorable even the minor ones. The film doesn’t have a straight up antagonist, the closest to that would be Alistair Hennessey (Played greatly by Jeff Goldblum) a smug rival to Steve although he’s not downright evil or malicious and eventually by the end of the film becomes a sort of friend to Steve and comforts him after the death of Ned. The biggest threat in the film would be the Filipino Pirates although they are not treated as the ultimatum threat which works fine, the true ultimatum threat is the Jaguar Shark, the enemy the whole movie is based on tracking down and know he is responsible for the death of Staves best friend, a supposed threat we only see at the very end of the movie, although when we do finally see it is seen as a beautiful looking creature who poses no threat to the characters who are in awe of it and in the end Steve decides not to kill it, however he does add that “We’ve run out of dynamite anyways” leaving it up for debate wherever he would still kill it had he had Dynamite. All the actors are good and fit their roles near perfectly however they don’t really have much moments to bite their teeth into it as it were as much of the film relies on deadpan humour and underreacting.
Visual Tricks: The film has noticeable visuals which is pretty par to the course for a Wes Anderson films, the most notable of them being the Stop Motion used to create the Jaguar Shark and the Yellow Submarine. It makes it look unrealistic and yet Wes Anderson always manages to pull it of as a deliberate visual look, which provides a nice juxtaposition and makes the creature and ship more memorable looking, like a throwback to classic movies. Another good visual key is the bright Red hats Steve and “Team Zissou” wear, the colour really pops out and make the crew distinctive looking and has become an iconic look among Wes Anderson fans, in fact at the screening of the film I mentioned earlier I saw several people in the audience wear that exact type of hat as tribute. As I will explain later the film is heavily stylised, even the text is unique to how most films do it, instead of being a bland white text it’s a bright colour with interesting font.
Music- I really like the choice of music in this film as it heavily comprises of Acoustic Guitar and a lot of David Bowie songs are performed in Portuguese by a in film character Pelé dos Santos, a safety expert and Brazilian guitarist, he’s a minor character and yet this trait and seeing him perform David Bowie songs make him very memorable. At times Rock music from 60’s-80’s also played. This blend of Acoustic Guitar and Rock music works fantastic with what is shown onscreen and helps make the upbeat tone of the film solid and one particularly memorable piece is Sigur Ros’s- Staralfur which plays when the crew finally finds the Jaguar Shark, it’s a brilliant song, works perfectly with the emotional significance of the scene.
The score was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh who has worked with Wes Anderson before.
The film is also clever when it comes to knowing when to play music to amp up the tone and when to stop music and sound altogether to achieve a perfect atmosphere that fits the scene, the best example of this in the shocking scene when out of nowhere Ned dies.
The lack of sound really makes the horrific imagery of Steve carrying the dead body of the man he beloved to be his son a powerful moment in a other wise snappy comedy.
Visuals: Overall the film has the qualities most people expect from a Wes Anderson film, a very upbeat tone and that mixes comedy with some dark real world subjects like revenge and family dysfunction, sharp dialogue that shines and worth remembering and some emotional scenes that while appear in small doses are very effective at fleshing out the characters and giving the film just enough depth to it.
Wes Anderson has become popular for his distinct directing style and colour pallet and while I think he does improve on all of these things in the work he has done since 2004 like Mr Fantastic Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s still all here and very well done.
The Life Aquatic has a strong sense of bright colour pallets that compliment each other well to make the main focus of the camera/scene (eg a character) really pop out on the screen and get peoples attention, for example the bright yellow submarine provides for a excellent juxtapostional imagery against the blackness of the deep ocean. I believe the most recurring and best looking colours in the film are Yellow (Diving suits, Submarine) shades of Blue (light blue for uniform and dark blue for the ocean) Brown (woodwork) and Red ( Hats and Theatre curtains) This recurring colour pallet does great things in terms of Visuals and it works well with the upbeat tone, because nobody wants drab colour in a comedy about Ocean life and along with this and the great use of space in this film it makes a lot of the shots very good.
In this film we see a lot of the Visual Style associated with Andersons work like smooth zoom and pans, rarely any Dutch tilts or angled shots going for perfectly lined up shots and we can tell in a lot of shots a camera dolly is being used. In one memorable one -shot scene Anderson takes full use of the great set work used for the “Belafonte” as the camera Ned and Steve as they argue and walk the ship, from the audience perspective it is shown like a dollshouse, the wall is gone and we can see the ship in great detail from the sides.
So to sum up this is a film with one of the finest and memorable Directing styles seen in recent years that shows Wes Anderson puts a lot of thought into each shot and a story that while not revolutionary or anything I would call a masterpiece is a great fun romp with a cast of colourful, well written and performed characters with one or two surprising scenes that might make you tear up and overall feels like a nice homage to classic films and is a rare treat to watch in a sea of CGI Clusterfucks most films chug out nowadays. I really like this film and it’s just bordering on love. I will say though that it is surpassed by the film Wes Anderson did 10 years after Aquatic, The Grand Budapest Hotel a film I consider both Andersons finest work and one of my favourite films of all time. Yet I will say that this is my second favourite Wes Anderson film and maybe one of the best films to come out of 2004 and while I do think it has some flaws like slow pacing at times and not enough strong content to really bite into I strongly recommend people to watch it, although if people can only watch one Wes Anderson film, it should be The Grand Budapest Hotel.
With that said I give this film a 8/10 bordering on a 9/10.