Today I watched Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Once again teaming with frequent collaborator Bill Murray, this time he plays the aggressively sardonic Zissou, a marine biologist/documentary filmmaker whose star is severely faded. During his last expedition a senior member of his crew named Esteban was eaten by a previously unidentified species of shark, Esteban was also Steve’s best friend. So Steve is out to get funding to make a follow up film in which he tracks down the shark and kills it with dynamite. Finding funding proves to be pretty tricky considering the poor reception the latest Zissou films have garnered, not to mention the possibly endangered status of the shark itself. Thankfully Ned Plimpton, a pilot from Kentucky played by Owen Wilson who may or may not be Zissou’s son, has recently inherited just enough money to get the project rolling. Cate Blanchett joins them as a pregnant reporter who wants to get to the person beneath all the bluster that is Zissou and kicks off a very Rushmore-esque love triangle between her, Ned and Steve.
Actually this film feels a lot like Rushmore where the characters are concerned, in that they are all dealing with grief and damage and covering it up with the film’s deadpan delivery. What makes me enjoy this film more than Rushmore though, is the framing of those characters and the bizarre world they inhabit. With this film Wes Anderson leans heavily into the artifice of film and the premise of a film about people making a film comes out most in the visual design. One of the common questions Zissou seems to get is whether his films are all staged or not and Wes Anderson decided to go about imbuing this film with as much artificiality as he can muster. Firstly most of the animals are CGI made to look more like claymation than real animals and there are a few which are just cheap looking practical effects. But then the film pulls some really expensive looking practical effects like the massive cutaway set of Zissou’s boat.
It’s interesting that so many critics call Anderson pretentious when pretention seems a major theme of his works. More specifically he seems very interested in what tragedy may lie behind all the bluster, he seeks to humanize the pretentious by examining them and their falseness. To this end the artifice of the film reflects the artifice of Zissou’s facade, and slowly exposes that through the very nature of film and stories in general, they are falsehoods. For that I think this is a remarkable and lovable movie, it’s star studded cast is filled with scene stealing bit parts from the likes of Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe and Bill Murray continues to something of a muse for Anderson, bringing out the best qualities in his works. While this may be his most divisive film, I would highly recommend giving it a shot. 5/5