Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou cordially invites you to join the gang on the Belafonte, a deep sea exploration vessel on a journey of discovery and revenge. It’s a film with heart, pizzazz, and cleverness, a deep dive into a man’s crumbling life and the pangs of hope he finds to bring forth his best expedition yet.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a world-famous oceanographer, documenting his deep-sea exploration along with his crew. But when his decades-long diving partner Esteban is eaten by what he thinks is a jaguar shark, he plots his revenge, accompanied now with his newly discovered son “Ned” (Owen Wilson), and Jane, a nosy but dogged reporter (Cate Blanchett).
From this grows a film of wild and fascinating inventiveness, going from exploration installation theft to underwater distress beacons to pirate hijacking to daring rescue. Anderson has made a movie with an unbelievable sense of style, a perfect example being the explanation of each room of Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte. Mark Mothersbaugh’s bouncy and joyful score plays as the camera pans about to the various sections and their descriptions, Murray’s lackadaisical narration touching on each room’s meaning and importance. It’s all done in a single take, moving about each room as though it is a static multi-story stage play. There’s the other touches and details that are signature Anderson, as well, like his repeated use of stop-motion animation for the creatures they encounter along the way, forced perspective, use of incredibly unique music in certain key instances (including a crew member who sings Portuguese David Bowie), and a mixture of color into the style of his scenes.
Another mainstay of Anderson’s films is his use of quirky humor, found in turns of phrase, double meaning, a false sense of entitlement and dislike of certain people or things. The dolphins traveling on the boat are never thought of as smart, commented on several times by Steve, but they capture random acts on their helmet cameras, seemingly looking to each other with knowing banter.
The aforementioned Mothersbaugh score is fantastic, full of beeps and boops and traditional score that is both catchy and soulful when the need calls for it.
There are small comments on the fallacies of its characters, their traits and their actions being against their very codes or ideals. At one point, Ned turns down marijuana and then lights up a cigarette. In another, Steve chastises Jane for drinking while pregnant, only to light up a cigarette of his own in front of her seconds later. These are small examples, but it helps to underline how these characters think, a charming hypocrisy that makes them even more relatable.
The film is almost fantasy with its portrayal of events and outcomes before snapping its audience back with a harsh reality from all of its consequences. This snappy writing, in both the emotional and witty sense, is a credit to Anderson and Noah Baumbach, who give their characters plenty of moments to shine.
Murray gives one of the best performances of his career in Life Aquatic, part of his deadpan period where his characters are all in some form of stillness or depression. This one holds to those particular strengths and is played with a level of genius in his interactions and fed up nature toward those around him in his time of need. He uses his grief almost as a weapon at times, as is his growing need for ego puffing, the signs of an age and era that he is slowly becoming disassociated from, more memory than the present.
Wilson and Blanchett play their characters straight, almost becoming the windows into this bizarre world. Blanchett’s character coming into this with a journalistic view leads to more objective leanings until her subjective side leaks in due to her own issues dealing with pregnancy and personal feelings toward Wilson’s Ned.
Willem Dafoe gives such a pitch-perfect performance as Klaus, a man who loves Steve deeply and is always at his side. His friendship is at risk when Ned arrives, threatening this bond that is perhaps his only lifeline. He bickers in such a passive-aggressive way, and his false toughness and lack of understanding are comical as they break so easily. And never stick him on B Squad, it’s a touchy subject. Jeff Goldblum, too, is wonderful as Hennessey, Steve’s far wealthier nemesis. His way with words, added to that Goldblum flair, makes him an easy favorite as he becomes involved in the second half of the film.
The third act is much more dramatic and serious in tone, but also holds a wonderful catharsis in a particular scene that proves just as memorable and emotional many viewings later. It’s a reminder that despite the—at times—goofy and fantastical nature the film holds, it makes you care for these people and their personal plight all the same.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is a film that divided audiences and was a commercial failure at its initial release, but has since become a cult film. It’s my personal favorite of Anderson’s films, a movie so full of charm and excitement and character that it is always worth revisiting. It’s a modern classic deserving a second watch if you have not seen it recently, and more than worth the visit if it’s your first time at sea.