The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Director Wes Anderson's career in feature films got started in 1996 with the low-budget, independently-made Bottle Rocket. Offers from major studios soon followed, which led to the Touchstone/Disney backed Rushmore in 1998. And then in 2001, Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums took a look at a dysfunctional upper crust family. None of these films indicated anything like The Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou remained waiting in the mind of Anderson.

An argument might be made that Life Aquatic involves a large but limited group of characters who are insulated from most interactions with society at large, as in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. So maybe Anderson is interested in the bizarre inner workings of groups and how they create their own rules of conduct. But such an approach isn't terribly helpful when approaching Life Aquatic because here Anderson takes such a quirky, whimsical approach to his subject that the characters have little relationship to real life.

At first, the movie feels like it might be a satire of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his numerous Undersea World films, but Anderson's film takes place in a strange alternate universe where bizarre species of ocean life lie waiting beneath the waves and the human characters all seem to be somewhat mentally challenged. So the distance between the world of Cousteau and Life Aquatic is too far for satire to bridge. (The movie's surreal sea creatures were designed with classic stop-motion animation by Henry Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James the Giant Peach.)

Rather, Life Aquatic is sustained by its own inspired flights of fancy (as when Team Zissou boards a small submersible and takes in some amazing underwater sights), as well as its so-banal-it's-funny brand of comedy. There isn't anything of real substance in The Life Aquatic. Rather we're fed a steady diet of mildly bizarre situations and generally genial characterizations. It's a strange mix that feels like it should be an allegory, but it's not. Life Aquatic is quirky simply for the sake of being quirky, which might not sound like much, but here the quirky flights of fancy are so inspired that they're frequently sublime. This is one of the most visually imaginative movies of the past decade (with production design by Mark Friedberg and art direction by Stefano Maria Ortolani).

Among the movie's delights is a huge, multi-tiered set that serves as a cross section of Team Zissou's ship, the Belafonte. Anderson gives us a tour of the ship as his camera (cinematography by Robert Yeoman) glides from cabin to cabin, through walls and floors. It's an amazing sequence that exists primarily simply because it looks so stunning. And so goes much of the movie in general. Scenes that might otherwise be mundane are enlivened by unusual camera angles and colorful set designs, as when Steven Zissou answers questions after a screening of his latest undersea film and the camera settles on a bland two shot of Zissou and his interviewer, mixed with long shots across a spacious theater with lush red curtains and multi-levels of balconies. Life Aquatic thrives on this mix of the mundane and the extraordinary.

The equally mundane and extraordinary Bill Murray stars as Steve Zissou (pronounced ZEE-sue). Murray is the perfect match for Anderson's preoccupations because he simultaneously looks so ordinary (he's balding, he has a spare tire around his mid section, he gets winded after running only a few steps, etc.) and he embodies a delightfully cockeyed perspective on life (as indicated by his big, goofy grin, his mischievous eyes, and his hyperactive posture). Murray's Steve Zissou is sort of like a matured and more mellow version of his Todd DiLaMuca character from Saturday Night Live (remember Gilda Radner as Lisa Loopner?). Zissou is older and wiser than Todd, but he's just as amazed with his own none-too-sharp brand of wit, as when Zissou explains how they improved on the underwater helmets of Cousteau by adding a "rabbit ear" that allows them to "pipe in some music"; Zissou demonstrates for us by pulling out the antenna, turning on the music—tinny, simplistic musical notes that sound like a throwback to '70s children's toys—and then he starts to bob his head and sway his arms and hips, certain of the coolness of this gadgets and blissfully unaware that he's at least three decades behind the times.

Part of the allure of watching Life Aquatic is experiencing just how content the main characters are in their time capsule. Sure, their ship is occasionally a source of frustration when the electricity goes on the fritz, but Zissou and his crew—bedecked in red knit caps and red Speedos—are generally happy as clams in their '60s time warp. But they begrudgingly acknowledge that their endeavors would benefit from up-to-date equipment, so they raid the facility of competitor Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) and incur his full wrath. However, while Hennessey has all the cutting edge gizmos, he's equally without a clue, and never really understands who stole his equipment. The only character who has a modicum of intelligence and wit is Eleanor Zissou (Angelica Huston), Steve's wife and the rumored brains behind Team Zissou.

Steve Zissou's life is given a mild jolt when the man "who may or may not" be his son (as Zissou introduces him at a party) shows up during the screening of Zissou's latest undersea film. Zissou's life is already in turmoil because his longtime partner, Esteban, was recently eaten by a 10-meters-long, previously unknown species of fish that Zissou dubs the jaguar shark. Zissou now vows to hunt down and kill the shark. "That's an endangered species: what would be the scientific purpose of killing it?" asks an interviewer. "Revenge," says Zissou, without a hint of irony. Zissou's son, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), agrees to join Team Zissou's new adventure, which causes friction with German engineer Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) who idolizes Steve and sees Ned as a threat. Also on hand are Cate Blanchett as a journalist writing about Team Zissou's newest adventure, Michael Gambon as Zissou's producer, Seu Jorge as the team's safety expert who sings Portugese versions of David Bowie songs, Robyn Cohen as the perpetually topless script girl, Bud Cort as the bond company stooge sent to ensure that Zissou adheres to the conditions of the loan that is financing the team's newest expedition, and several other team members.

Whether or not you'll enjoy Life Aquatic depends entirely on how much pleasure you derive from the bizarre and whimsical. If that seems like a valid end goal in its own right, you'll likely have fun watching this movie; however, if you expect more substance, you'll likely struggle with Life Aquatic. Instead of substance, the movie exists on the inspired ways in which Anderson juxtaposes the mundane and the incredible, as when the Belafonte's voyage is interrupted by pirates who swarm on the ship and tie up all the members of Team Zissou. Soon afterwards, the movie's action quotient gets bumped up a notch when Zissou grabs a gun and saves the day like a new (and somewhat thick in the midsection) incarnation of Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger. No, there isn't much substance here, but Anderson's visions are so awe-inspiringly beautiful as to seem almost heavenly, as when Team Zissou swims through a forest of tube worms over 15 feet tall. The movie may lack substance, but its visions will linger in your mind for years to come.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Touchstone
Movie Web site: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou



Photo credits: © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
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