The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Starring: Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon
Following the critical successes of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson had become more of a household name by the time his fourth feature The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was released in 2005. While now regarded affectionately, at the time of its release The Life Acquatic proved one of the more divisive of Anderson’s efforts, with critics praising the production design, visuals and adventurous spirit but lamenting the characterisation and narrative. This split in opinion is clearly evident in William Thomas’ 2004 Empire review, which reads, “Unfortunately, for all its comic, aesthetic astuteness, there’s something very important missing from Anderson’s latest that’s always been there before: heart”.
The narrative of Anderson’s fourth feature is heavily inspired by Jacques Cousteau and has nods to Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. In The Life Aquatic, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an Oceanographer seeking to document a “Jaguar Shark”, a mysterious creature that is believed to have killed a crew member during a previous expedition and whose documentation is destined to ensure Zissou’s place in science history. What follows is a comedic look at the traditional sea exploration sub-genre of cinema and literature, and is the closest in Anderson’s filmography to an adventure or action film, the picture’s second act in particular having a number of memorable set pieces.
It would not be a Wes Anderson project without a large ensemble cast, and The Life Aquatic features a number of regular A-List Anderson collaborators including Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson, while respected character actors Cate Blanchett and Michael Gambon make their only appearances for the director in this release. The bulk of the cast do a fine job of fleshing out their characters, but perhaps there is some credence to the thought of the characters being underdeveloped, and it is certainly true that the performances lack some of the sparkle found in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore in particular. Bill Murray stars at the head of the talented group in one of his rare lead roles in an Anderson project (the bulk of his other collaborations with the director being cameo appearances or supporting roles), the actor offering an ever-dependable comic performance at arguably the height of his post-80s powers following the gargantuan success of Lost in Translation the year prior (2003).
The production design and aesthetics of the film were singled out for high praise in even the more middling reviews published around its release, with many noting the attention to detail given to Zissou’s ship The Belafonte and the overall feel of the world. Anderson’s use of colour and his unique productions have been parodied to high heaven in the years since The Life Aquatic, so it can be easy to overlook the influence he has had within this area and how distinctive his films are within their production design, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou being by far one of the most visually dynamic and ambitious projects of his career to that point.
As was the case with Wes Anderson’s earlier work, the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is key to the idiosyncratic style that Anderson presents, the odd mix of famous David Bowie tracks and Portuguese language covers of famous songs from Brazilian actor and musician Seu Jorge making for a distinctive and quirky audio accompaniment that helps to increase your likelihood of enjoying this unique albeit divisive release.
Whilst somewhat of a misfire in 2004, appreciation for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has increased tenfold in the decade and a half that has followed (perhaps in no small part due to the success of Anderson’s later films Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel). One of Anderson’s strongest and most eclectic casts really sells the quirkiness of The Life Aquatic’s world, and it is a fun, escapist romp harking back to many seafaring works of the past while maintaining Anderson’s unique visual and storytelling traits. It may not have the heart of some of this great filmmaker’s other offerings, but The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou more than makes up for it in other ways.