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Alex Stroup, editor

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Touchstone delves into the quirky with new Wes Anderson release

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 earlier movies.

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 is.

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 pregnant—for real!—Cate Blanchett, who will be writing a magazine article but may be out for a hatchet job.

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 caricature.

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 Pictures release

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 nudity.

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.


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