The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is turning 15 this year. On a whim, I picked it up at the library recently along with The Darjeeling Limited. Life Aquatic was a re-watch and Darjeeling was one of Wes Anderson’s films that I was finally getting around to seeing for the first time. See below for something new I’m trying; it’s a feature I’m calling Revisited, where I’m going on the record with a movie I’ve seen before but never written about.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is probably director Wes Anderson’s most baroque film in terms of what’s happening on screen. I include the word probably because that honor may actually belong to The Grand Budapest Hotel. I haven’t seen that movie since its 2014 release, though. This is also my first revisit of Life Aquatic after my initial viewing of it a decade or so ago (it was in the before time, when I didn’t have Letterboxd to tell me the exact date of each movie I’ve watched).
I’m generally a fan of Anderson’s work. His only few misfires for me are The Darjeeling Limited and Isle of Dogs, although there are aspects of those films that I enjoyed. With Life Aquatic, Anderson builds a meticulously crafted, insanely idiosyncratic world, and he’s painstaking about using every filmmaking flourish at his disposal. That’s what I mean by baroque. I’m a sucker – like almost every other cinéaste – for Anderson’s complex tracking shots, fast-zooms, whip pans, and obsessively detailed set designs. Those things are present in every Anderson film, and in Life Aquatic we also get bonuses like musician Seu Jorge performing a boatload of David Bowie covers on acoustic guitar and in Portuguese.
Where Life Aquatic falters is in how it splits its time between two main dramatic arcs. The picture focuses on Steve Zissou, an underwater adventurer and filmmaker in the mold of Jacques Cousteau. Like many of Anderson’s protagonists, Zissou is mercurial at his best and downright assholish at his worst. Played to sarcastic perfection by Bill Murray, Zissou might be the kind of person who Max Fischer in Rushmore would grow up to be.
The film opens in the aftermath of Team Zissou suffering a tragedy while shooting their latest documentary. Steve’s long-time collaborator and friend Esteban du Plantier is attacked and killed. Zissou dubs the never-before-seen killer as a “jaguar shark.” At a Q-and-A following the premiere of the film, he vows revenge on the creature. Among the audience is a Kentucky airline pilot – Owen Wilson, with a deliciously absurd accent – who approaches Zissou and eventually tells him that he believes he might be Zissou’s son.
Either of these storylines – revenge on the jaguar shark or Zissou becoming a reluctant father – would have been enough to sustain the movie. Anderson and cowriter Noah Baumbach also throw in an extended rescue sequence when Zissou’s arch nemesis, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum at his comedically smarmiest), is abducted by Filipino pirates.
It’s a lot for Anderson to juggle, and he doesn’t keep all the balls in the air on this one. Life Aquatic never quite earns the emotional impact that other Anderson films like The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel do. So, while Anderson’s inspired use of the Sigur Rós track Starálfur does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the resolution to the jaguar shark plot, the movie doesn’t spend enough time on the story line to produce that effect on its own.
Still, there is a lot of magic to behold in Life Aquatic. Anderson went to the trouble to enlist animator Henry Selick to make every sea creature we see on screen an ethereal stop-motion creation. The fact that his characters are documentary filmmakers also gives Anderson an excuse to make the act of moviemaking itself part of the movie. This display of his unique aesthetic made Life Aquatic worth the time to revisit, and I’m glad I did.