Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Cate Blanchett
Both Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach have made some very melancholic and depressing films. They often deal with tough themes such as death, middle age and aspirations and often in a very detached way. When they first joined together, they co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. A melancholic film about their usual themes, presented in Anderson’s usual style and mixed with Baumbach’s detached hopeless feeling that he would later develop further in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. That’s not to say that Life Aquatic isn’t a funny comedy-drama, as it most definitely is, it just presents a darker side of life in a way that only Anderson and Baumbach can, with an abstract tone, quirky music and a great cast.
Steve Zissou is a documentary film maker, who hasn’t made a good film in 5 years. On his latest documentary his best friend is eaten alive, and Zissou doesn’t even capture the creature that did it on camera. People don’t believe him and think his film is fake, his career has stalled and the lust for life has gone. At the premiere for the film, he announces part 2, where he is going to track down the creature that killed his friend and enact revenge. He then meets Ned, who claims to be his son and invites him to join his crew, along with a journalist who is writing a hit piece on Zissou.
This is a film about being lost. The crew on Zissou’s ship are an odd bunch of people from various backgrounds with no real experience. Ned claims to be Zissou’s long lost son but isn’t sure. Zissou himself is dealing with the loss of success, meeting and connecting with his potential son and lost youth. He regrets not having a son with his current wife. He wonders where his talent has gone, and he is grieving for the loss of his friend. It’s a very downbeat film, that is presented in an abstract way.
Anderson’s style of filmmaking is evident all of this film. From the cast of familiar Anderson faces to the way the camera moves in very intentional ways, with every shot being very exact. When we first see the ship, and several more times throughout, we are guided room by room with the camera moving between walls, as if the ship has been cut in half and we can see the cross-section. It gives an almost dreamlike quality to the way the story is presented further distancing us emotionally from the characters, in the same way that Zissou is distanced from life. His lust for the story has gone, and he has been hallowed out to formulaic set pieces. Gone is the wonder in his earlier documentaries that we only see glimpses of, here we are presented with a man who is past his prime and he knows it.
To add to the dreamlike quality is an excellent soundtrack, mixed with strange ambient electronic music that sounds akin to demo loops on a keyboard and a long list of David Bowie songs covered in Portuguese on an acoustic guitar. Nothing on the Belafonte feels real, as if the manufactured documentaries, filled with scripted moments have seeped out into Zissou’s real life. As the audience we can see that Zissou’s life is starting to lose the distinction between documentary and reality.
The film also has some insane moments. They are attacked by pirates, who Zissou fends off in one of the strangest shoot outs on film. They rescue another captain who has been kidnapped in a daring raid that is bizarre. It feels like we are watching Zissou’s last great adventure through the eyes of a child, specifically Ned who spent most of his own childhood looking up to and admiring Zissou.
Throughout this strange tale is some amazing performances. Bill Murray, as always is great. During the late 90s and early 2000s he played a string of great middle-aged characters lost in their way and his portrayal of Zissou joins his roles in Rushmore and Lost in Translation to cement himself as more than just a comedian, but a good dramatic actor as well. His character holds the emotional weight of the film. Willem Dafoe is also excellent as the child-like character, who sees Zissou as a father. He brings a much-needed comedic relief to the overbearing weight of time suffocating life.
The film also plays with some tropes. We are presented with Ned approaching Zissou as a potential son, but he makes it clear that he isn’t sure. Instead of the usual tale of the son looking to take advantage of his famous dad, we see a dad who clings to his son, desperate for his approval. He takes his money, wants to steal his ideas. He desperately wants what his son has, youth.
There are some issues with this film though. It is definitely too long, at around 2 hours, there are moments where it starts to get boring. You aren’t always engaged when watching, which is just a shame. The story meanders about in places and there are some strands that aren’t given enough space. It would have been better to spend some more time with Zissou and his best friend. It never feels real that his friend dies. There isn’t much passion in the revenge and at some points it’s easy to forget that this is the driving force behind the plot. It can be argued that the lack of passion is the point of the film, but the lack of focus makes the film less engaging.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a strange film. It’s very downbeat and melancholic, presented in a fun and quirky way. It’s not Anderson’s best film, but his style is very much cemented here. He would later go on to direct more of the wonderful and strange. Noah Baumbach would also go on to write more downbeat and realistic portrayals of the darker side of a mundane life. Life Aquatic is interesting, depressing and a little bit too long.