The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Touchstone delves into the quirky with new Wes Anderson
Thursday, December 23, 2004
by Alex Stroup, editor
For the second time this year, Touchstone is releasing the
fourth major film from an important American director. As with last summer's
The Village from M. Night Shyamalan, The Life Aquatic with Steve
Zissou may be a better indicator of Wes Anderson's future than the
Anderson did not burst onto the scene as spectacularly as Shyamalan (the
total box office for Anderson's three movies doesn't equal the take from
any one of Shyamalan's) but Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and
The Royal Tenenbaums quickly established Anderson as a critical
darling with (also like Shyamalan) a very unique vision.
Wes Anderson films are highly constructed. He meticulously builds the
image on the screen, layering everything together, and achieving a surprising
result. While at first it appears that little is happening, it slowly
dawns on the viewer just how much was missed, requiring further viewings
to reexamine what has already passed. This makes writing a review based
on a single screening a high-risk activity. The risk being that after
seeing it again, I will contradict myself (as happened with Tenenbaums).
© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
The Life Aquatic follows an oceanographic documentary team (in
the vein of Jacques Cousteau), fading quickly in glory, success, and finances.
The trip just finished saw one of the partners eaten by some type of never
before seen shark. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) vows one more trip to find
and kill the shark. When queried what the scientific purpose of this would
be, Zissuo replies revenge. That's the kind of movie this
It is absurd. The closest to a genre for it that I can think of are the
Zanuck Brothers' movies (such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun).
However, while those films relied on one-liners and physical humor, The
Life Aquatic is much more subtle, finding humor in the setup and editing
tricks. This creates a very split response: it either works for you or
it doesn't; and if it doesn't, it is going to be a long two-hours.
Zissou's crew consists of strays covering all aspects of the ship and
filmmaking responsibilities, but the highlight is Willem Dafoe as Klaus,
Zissou's insecure lieutenant. For once, Dafoe's whiny voice fits a part.
Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston) is Steve's wife and the brains behind
the operation; she is also the ex-wife of Steve's rival, the well-funded
Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum).
At this point, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, for the first time not a co-writer
with Wes Anderson) arrives on the scene, pretty sure that Steve Zissou
is his father, and gets a position on board. The crew will also be joined
by a reporter, played by a thoroughly pregnantfor real!Cate
Blanchett, who will be writing a magazine article but may be out for a
It isn't even worth it to try and do a plot blow-by-blow. The absurd
is difficult to explain, rarely funny in the retelling, and relies heavily
on surprise. Wes Anderson characters are all very stoic, somehow removed
from the story they're in, and this can give heft to characters like Bill
Murray in Rushmore or Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums,
but it can also remove from the viewer the burden to care. Why should
they, if the characters don't seem to?
This is where The Life Aquatic is a downgrade from previous efforts.
It cranks up the comedy that has always been present, but at the expense
of the humanity that could always be found. Except for a connection between
Ned and Blanchett's Jane Winslett-Richardson, everybody else remains a
I'm running most at risk here. Based upon my single viewing, I could
see signs where Anderson seemed to be saying IMPORTANT THINGS HERE!
but perhaps I was too distracted by such things as Bill Murray in a leaves-little-to-the-imagination
dive suit to fully suss it out. Unfortunately, if further viewings (and
they will happen) change things, there will not be a follow-up MousePlanet
review saying, on review, much better than first thought.
One of the weirder choices in the making of the film was Wes Anderson's
decision not to use CGI (or at least not in the places you'd expect).
The movie is full of weird and exotic creatures, and each one was modeled
and put into the movie through stop-motion animation (think of Ray Harryhausen
features) rather than simply drawing them with computers. Anderson also
took it a step further by making each creature obviously fake, such as
red-and-white-striped crabs. While I can appreciate the aesthetic that
produced this choice, in the end it doesn't pay off. Every time a lizard
or a fish swam by, it pulled me out of things completely.
Whether you end up loving it or hating it, The Life Aquatic is
a movie much more worthy of your consideration than most other movies
being released. It will at least repay your engagement, rather than just
treating you like a cog in the box office money machine. It is not appropriate
for children: technically because of language, some pot use, and some
bare breasts (well, just two, but repeatedly) but also realistically,
as it would generally bore them.
Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a Touchstone
Wide theatrical release: Saturday, December 25
Directed by Wes Anderson.
Screenplay by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston,
Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum.
Rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial
Running time: 119 minutes
Alex's Rating: 7 out of 10
Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted information junkie, Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.
Click here to contact Alex.