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Wes Anderson Retrospective: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Let’s get nautical in this 2004 aquamarine adventure courtesy of Wes Anderson et al. Blue, red, white and fawn are the colours of the day in what is another pastel masterclass in set design. Anderson’s biggest budget to date (circa $50m in 2004 dollars), the film was a commercial flop and was panned by critics and audiences alike on release. Having seen a reappraisal in recent years, it’s achieved cult-status and is certainly one of his best. My first Anderson film and a personal favourite; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

=The premise of the film is simple – shark kills best friend. Man goes on revenge mission to kill shark. Along the way, man meets maybe-son and bonding ensues. But like one of those goop-filled chocolate eggs, the richness of the experience is hidden within the confines of the unassuming chocolate exterior. A simple plot provides the backdrop for other elements to shine. It’s the intricate sets and the beautiful colour palette, the deadpan acting and the whity dialog, the oh-so-chic costumes and the grand characters that makes viewing such a treat.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Wes Anderson

Bill Murray plays the titular Steve Zissou – an aging oceanographer and nature documentary maker whose life is quite generally going to shit. His marriage is on the rocks, his fame is waning, his rival is more successful than him and he can’t secure funding for his next project – oh, and did I mention his best friend was eaten by a shark? He’s abrasive – sometimes downright offensive – and nostalgic for times past. It’s hard to understate how good Murray is in this role. He’s so good in fact, that Steve Zissou comes to mind when I think of the actor. Murray manages to have us feel both genuine sympathy and the deepest scorn for the character, combining deadpan delivery with effortless coolness. Steve Zissou lights his cigarette by hot air balloon and drinks his Campari by the glass. He’s a sleaze towards women and a deadbeat dad. He has a boat, a nemesis, and a revenge date with a force of nature. He’s complicated and that’s why we love him.

The other actors are no slouches either. Most of the remaining airtime is split between love interests Ned “Kingsley” Plimpton (played by Owen Wilson); a 30-ish Air-Kentucky pilot and Steve’s maybe-son, and Jane Winslett-Richardson (played by Cate Blanchett); embedded journalist and single mother who acts as a foil to Murray’s Steve. Ned and Jane bond over daddy issues – Ned having grown up without one and Jane envisioning a similar fate for her unborn son – which results in friction between the pair and Steve. Steve represents the father that was never there, too busy galivanting over foreign seas to be present. He is met with apathy from Ned and scorn from Jane.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Wes Anderson

The supporting cast is excellent too. Willem Dafoe is hilarious as Klaus, the Belafonte’s “German” engineer who is jealous over Steve’s affection for Ned. Jeff Goldblum plays the ripped and “half-gay” Alistair Hennessey, Steve’s rival, and Anjelica Huston is stunning as Steve’s distant wife and the brains of team Zissou, Eleanor. As in most Anderson films post The Royal Tenenbaums, there are a host of smaller roles that have both richness and depth. Of particular note here is Seu Jorge’s Pelè – the ship’s “safety expert” and resident musician, who performs Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs at regular intervals throughout the film.

Of course, much of the richness of the film comes from the set, costumes and subtle references to culture (this is a Wes Anderson film after all). It’s the Belafonte, complete with Chinese-engineered sauna, dream-inspired observation bubble and accompanying albino dolphin scouts. It’s the rich costumes, such as Team Zissou’s head-to-toe aquamarine uniform, aquamarine wetsuits, aquamarine pyjamas and bright red beanies (anyone know where I can get one of these?). It’s Jane reading Proust to her unborn baby and Steve’s limited edition Zissou Adidas Rom sneakers. It’s the bond company stooge, who’s also a human being. These small details and hidden treasures are so easy to miss, but are also what make rewatching a treat.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Wes Anderson

Ultimately, The Life Aquatic is a more uneven experience than The Royal Tenenbaums. It was also more ambitious, resulting in many of the weakest elements of the film (the action scenes involving the Pilipino pirates come to mind). Nevertheless, it still manages to deliver on everything we have come to expect from the director and it’s a shame it wasn’t better received on release. It’s certainly one of Anderson’s more adult movies and also one of his most difficult. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the director’s work (it was a jarring experience for me) but the seasoned die-hard will definitely appreciate it.

At the end of the film we are treated to what must be the best and most beautiful payoff scene in any of Anderson’s films. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will leave you with the question you’ll be asking once it’s over:

“What’s next for team Zheh-zuh?”

4 / 5