The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

This review was originally published at Christianity Today in December 2004.

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You won’t find the word father on the résumé of Steve Zissou.

That’s because Zissou, an inventive seafaring documentarian, has been too caught up in his own self-perpetuating mythology to settle down and raise a family. But every dream has its price, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, director Wes Anderson’s latest melancho-medy, is the story of a visionary who must reckon with the temporality, and the cost, of his dreams. The ambitious captain of the Belafonte is clearly past his prime. Cracks are spreading through his reputation as a trustworthy scientist. He’s burdened by tragedy. And he’s struggling to maintain his few important relationships. Life is proving more difficult to “direct” than the movies he makes with his crew. He’ll either sink under the weight of life’s disappointments, or be lifted up by an unexpected blessing.

Played with typical devil-may-care detachment by Bill Murray, Zissou is a comical version of the popular 1970s explorer Jacques Cousteau. His films recount the adventures of his faithful crew, “Team Zissou,” as they examine new forms of sea life and hold forth about their discoveries, sporting the trademark Zissou style—Speedos and red stocking caps. As a result, they’ve enjoyed some celebrity … even some merchandising. There was once a line of Zissou adidas.

But Zissou’s audience is becoming suspicious that some aspects of his video chronicles are “faked.” When his latest installment premieres, documenting the death of his loyal sidekick Esteban (Anderson standby Seymour Cassell) in the jaws of the rare and dangerous Jaguar Shark, they’re skeptical. When he vows that his next chapter will be a revenge quest against the bloodthirsty beast, it sounds like the plan of a man losing his balance.

Ill-advised and ill-equipped, Zissou’s quest is interrupted by a crisis that brings out the best in him. After his ship is attacked by Filipino pirates, he musters the courage to attempt the rescue of a hostage crew member, postponing the inevitable face-off with that dastardly shark. He demonstrates some of the heroism he always hopes his films will capture.

There are other storms, however, that he’s not so prepared to endure. Off-camera, his marriage to the magisterial Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), “the brains” behind Team Zissou, is floundering. He’s jealous at the success of his competitor, wealthy seaman Allistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who may steal Eleanor’s affections. And he’s taken aback when a new volunteer—a Southern gentleman and Air Kentucky pilot named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson)—climbs aboard and announces that he may be Zissou’s son. The melancholy skipper retorts, “I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.” Ultimately, his quest to get revenge (“Maybe with dynamite”) will lead him to realize that his glory days are past, his journey will be fraught with uncertainty and disappointment, and yet his efforts have not been entirely in vain. He was right all along to approach the world with enthusiasm and wonder.

Careening between comical capers and existential angst, Aquatic is Anderson’s most ambitious work to date. It’s set outside his natural habitat of meticulously designed interiors. And yet, each scene bears his unmistakable signature. It feels more “illustrated” than filmed, in a way that couldn’t be replicated by any other artist. Each of Aquatic’s exotic contexts is precariously balanced between complicated realism and inspired whimsy. In his cabin, Zissou struggles with the pressures of adulthood. But when he dives, we’re plunged into a cartoonish wonderland. Most of the creatures we see there—from a glow-in-the-dark shark to a Technicolor seahorse—were given life by Henry Selick, the master of stop animation who brought us The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Zissou’s passengers are just as colorful as the specimens he draws from the sea. He’s assembled a team of laborers who, while they lack “the background” to deserve such positions, flatter their captain’s ego and mirror his aimlessness. In return, they’re given a sense of purpose and identity.

None of them are more loyal than his jealous manservant Klaus (Willem Dafoe, playing against type). “Calm, collected, German,” Klaus runs Team Zissou’s cameras and tries to defend his position against any new threats. There’s a Pole (Noah Taylor), a Sikh, a topless “script girl,” and a group of unpaid student interns who are only slightly concerned that their pilot has no compass. Below the ship, two albino dolphins flit about with cameras strapped to their heads, intelligent enough to disobey every order. Above, Pelé dos Santos (City of God’s Seu Jorge) sits in the crow’s nest and strums solo arrangements of David Bowie songs, singing them in Portuguese. Why? It seems arbitrary at first, but the more we become acquainted with Steve’s restless spirit, the more these renditions of “Life on Mars?” and “Rebel Rebel” seem appropriate.

On this particular voyage, two wildcards have been added to the deck. An accountant “stooge” named Bill (Bud Cort) is along for the ride, reporting back to the expedition’s grouchy financier—Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon). Cort’s presence is a brilliant bit of casting since he once starred in Harold and Maude, a uniquely subversive comedy that clearly influenced Anderson’s style. There’s also a beautiful and very pregnant journalist, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett in another chameleonic transformation). Richardson is covering Zissou forOceanographic Explorer, and she holds her cards close to her lifejacket, attending to the maverick sailor’s endeavors with an intensity that mystifies, arouses, and ultimately aggravates him. But he’s happy to have her along for the ride.

Zissou is even generous to his competitor, Hennessey, who has a bigger boat, better financing, and a crew of young men who look like they just walked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. (Hennessey’s sexual orientation is as ambiguous as his qualifications for being a villain.) Zissou seems to believe that any great man must keep a good enemy around. “Be kind to Allistair,” he insists. “He’s my nemesis.”

The Belafonte is a character in itself. The camera pans along a fantastic cross-section, mapping each chamber so we can see the activity going on inside. The layout testifies to Zissou’s priorities. Where the Starship Enterprise is famous for its flight deck, sick bay, and engine rooms, the Belafonte seems built around a kitchen and a film-editing studio.

Torn between creative genius, quixotic madness, and relational incompetence, Steve Zissou is just the latest manifestation of the character that anchors all of Anderson’s films—the lost and mournful king who realizes his kingdom is slipping away. He’s a needy, sad individual who refuses to admit that he needs anybody, preferring to pretend he’s still in his prime. Bottle Rocket‘s Dignan seems paralyzed in a simplistic, childlike, overimaginative state of mind, inspiring both pity and nostalgia in the jaded grownups around him. Rushmore‘s Max refuses to graduate from his beloved high school, terrified of moving into adulthood where couldn’t be successful in everything. Tenenbaums‘ Royal has already lost his kingdom, and he fights to regain the days of a flourishing family, even though he’s single-handedly burned most of the bridges he needs to cross.

Just as Tenenbaum’s ruse about being on his deathbed is a feeble attempt to regain the love of his family, Zissou’s quest to kill that shark is a misguided way of lashing out at the forces that have wrested life’s steering wheel from his grasp. It becomes an opportunity to face his worst fear, and to realize that perhaps it is not to be feared at all, but to be humbly acknowledged and accepted, along with the grace offered along the way.

Anderson’s patient, studious fans know that there is much more to his characters than their quirks. As always, there are hints of a very human heart beating beneath all of Aquatic’s peculiar extravagance. That heartbeat is the relationship between Steve and Ned, characters united in loss. Just as Zissou mourned Esteban, so Ned misses his mother, a victim of ovarian cancer. They need each other. When the unmarried journalist touches her very pregnant belly and accidentally remarks “We’ve got to find a baby for this father,” there’s a wonderful irony in her misstatement.

But you may agree with critics like Roger Ebert, frustrated by the film’s abundance of frivolous details. It’s a valid complaint. Anderson seems averse to melodrama, and his movie is like Zissou himself—too caught up in distraction to dwell on deeper issues. He loves his characters’ idiosyncrasies and accessories, and this time he loves them to a fault, failing to inspire our emotions the way he engages the intellect. When a last-act tragedy occurs, it’s bewildering, almost incidental, rather than heartbreaking. Thus, Aquatic lacks the impact of its predecessors.

Nevertheless, this is a journey worth taking for its admirable focus on the value of family, and for the chance to meet more of the wonderful characters that populate the mysterious depths of Anderson’s imagination. Of his experimental expeditions, this is his first major navigational error. And while the movie never really arrives at anything fulfilling, the journey itself will stand as one of 2004′s most memorable, surprising films.

 

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