The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson and his films have been variously described as “quirky,” “idiosyncratic,” “precious,” and as filled with “terminal whimsy.” In his earlier films, especially The Royal Tennenbaums, I’ve enjoyed Anderson’s playful style, his meticuolous attention to set design. Many critics have noted that Anderson’s films function more as giant “doll houses” more than carefully plotted narratives, an observation that is perhaps most evident in the arrested development of the Tennenbaum mansion and the Max’s set models in Rushmore. Further, as David Edelstein points out, in many of Anderson’s films, “there’s a tension between the person and the persona,” whether the flawed “family of geniuses” in the Tennenbaums or the aspiring crime geniuses in Bottle Rocket.

His latest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (IMDB), indulges many of these tendencies. In fact, Zissou, in my reading, seems even more whimsical and less carefully paced than many of Anderson’s earlier films. Zissou focuses on the ocean explorer Steve Zissou (Murray), a Jacques Cousteau figure whose films are receiving less attention (and popularity) as their narratives lose any suspense and romance. The film opens at an Italian debut of one of his latest films (in a familar Anderson trope of showing a film or play audience), and it’s clear that the audience is bored by the film, their questions polite rather than curious. But when Zissou’s closest friend and assistant is killed by a “jaguar shark,” he vows revenge, plotting to pursue the shark and kill it a la Captain Ahab. At the screening, Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who claims to be his son. This claim is never confirmed, but the two lonely people attempt to connect, with Zissou inviting Ned to join his crew.

Like other Anderson films, the tension between person and persona is played out narratively and through set design. Zissou’s pretensions as an undersea explorer are conveyed as much by his red sea cap, his ship’s flag, and his blue uniform. In one of the film’s best shots, the camera glides from room to room in the ship, revealing much about how Zissou (and the rest of the film’s characters) wish to see themselves. But once the film established this tension, I was never quite sure how it wanted to address it. There are several moments in which the film seems to want to parody the documentary form, to convey the ways in which “reality” in a documentary is constructed, but Anderson seems to abandon that question towards the end of the film.

Visually, Anderson’s films continue to fascinate, and the “undersea adventure” parody gives Anderson’s vivid visual imagination room to play. He still offers characters who confront the difficult realization that they may not be able to live up to their celebrity image. Like The Royal Tennenbaums, especially, Zissou seems to exist in a temporally muddled alternate reality, with characters appearing slightly out of place. In Tennenbuams, this approach is clear. Anderson explicitly masked all references to contemporary New York City, using actors’ bodies to block out shots that would normally include the Statue of Liberty (for example).

In Zissou, the bright reds and garish yellows of Zissou’s uniform and the fan club insignia ring that Ned dutifully wears make the film appear to take place in a slightly different present than our own. This sense of an “alternate present” is conveyed in part musically, with the crew member (Seu George) who sings David Bowie songs in Portguese. I’m not quite sure how to bring these observations together into a fully coherent reading. Like Roger Ebert, I’m finding it difficult to “recommend” the film, but I’m not sure that’s the point of writing about a film, anyway. I do think that Anderson’s narrative becomes muddled towards the end, but the film seems more interesting to me this morning than it did last night.


  1. michelle Said,

    December 31, 2004 @ 1:12 pm

    I still can’t decide if I want to see it.

    Have a happy new year!

  2. Rusty Said,

    December 31, 2004 @ 4:10 pm

    I just watched it earlier today, and my reaction was sort of the same thing: huh? My parents hated it, but… well, they’re my parents.

  3. Chris Said,

    December 31, 2004 @ 6:13 pm

    I just got back from it. I loved Tenenbaums, and I’m a fan in general of Anderson’s films (Tenenbaums being my favorite)…

    So I left the theater pleased with the experience, but not in love with the film. It seemed to me in many ways to be aching to be as quirky and adorable and tragic and dark as Tenenbaums without quite achieveing it.

    When I saw Adaptation, I remember thinking how it was an excellent film, but that the experience wasn’t the same as with the previous Kaufman/Jonze pairing, Being John Malkovich (which I adored).

    I had the same thought after The Life Aquatic, as it relates to Tenenbaums. I liked it a lot, and I wanted to love it, but I just didn’t connect with it in the same way that I did the previous Anderson film. Not really sure why. Maybe it was Owen Wilson’s forced Kentucky accent, or Cate Blanchett’s forced high pitched voice… all in all, a very enjoyable film, but not one I’ll be dying to own on DVD (and that is the way I judge a film, ultimately — if I really, REALLY want to buy the DVD so I can “own” the movie, then I know I loved it; if not, I just enjoyed it)…

  4. chuck Said,

    December 31, 2004 @ 6:53 pm

    I also thought Wilson’s accent was forced. And Blanchett’s whispery, high-pitched voice seemed to belong to a different character. I actually found myself feeling somewhat bored during the film, but that may be due to the fact that I’ve had such a busy week that anything short of MTV/Olver Stone would have seemed slow by comparison.

    Anderson is doing something interesting in the film with these failed characters who once had a flash of genius, but Zissou seemed like it was repeating what went well in Tenenbaums, a film I genuinely love (and own), without adding anything very new.

  5. Daniel Said,

    February 6, 2006 @ 9:44 am

    I dont normally post , but had to in response to such lukewarm reviews and empty tired criticisms of over expectance; each to his own but i for one thought this a really film, one of the most beautiful films ive seen in a fair while – i only wish id caught it at the cinema. Andersons fairy tale style story of adventure is reminiscent of a “Boys Own” type adventure, perhaps a slightly modern more mature take, but itloses none of the innocence of its “genre”. It really struck a chord with me and ive recommended it to many friends – one friend whom i was discussing it with (or rather speaking at him about), when asked him if he’d seen it replied “No, but ive read enough about it to be able to pretend i have in conversation” , and if a film is able to make some one want to have seen it so bad that they pretend to have seen it just to talk about it…well its a very strange and interesting thing. With so much crap being churned out on both the big screen and the box, Life Aquatic is a breath of fresh air, after an extended dive to the bottom of the ocean. The theatrics of it are what makes it, the script being given life by true acting, the kind of acting youd see in a small town repetory production of older classics like “Dial M…”, heartfelt , not recitatious, especially when combined with the playfull and imaginative sets and colors…the whole movie/reality style of film is so boring and done to death, the return to theatre is brilliant.A real escape from reality…like a dream. Ill finish up like a wanker and say 10 out of 10. Ill also finish up by copywriting the word “recitatious” – for a full definition of the word email me =).

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