You’d be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with a Wes Anderson film, and yet you’ll discover that it doesn’t offer anything truly insightful, moving or informative. His films are kaleidoscopes of colour and textures and wonky characters who’d rather fall asleep in a grave than in their own beds, and they are usually very pretty to look at, but they seem to tackle life issues at face value instead of burrowing deep below the surface to come out with the solutions.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is Anderson’s fourth movie, and it is about a down-and-out oceanographer who is not unlike the legendary Jacques Cousteau, except for the fact that he doesn’t care much about the sanctity of natural life, nor does he hold himself in very high regard. I suspect he doesn’t care for nature because the nature he explores in The Life Aquatic is made up of stop-motion animation and very unusual patterns. The Sugar Crab, for instance, seen “mating” on the shore of Steve’s vacation-cum-work island, looks like it was made out of the kind of craft paper you’d find at the local arts and craft shop.
Even the gigantic Jaguar Shark, which is this movie’s main attraction, slices through the deep water with about as much weight and gravitas as a feather trying to sink itself in mercury. Of course, this is Anderson’s style. He has an affinity for stop-motion graphics, and more often than not they are effective. The animals in The Life Aquatic are bright and beautiful; they only lack conviction. This isn’t a criticism. It is merely an observation.
The movie opens with the premiere of one of Steve’s nature documentaries in a grand Italian theatre. The audience is silent and regards the film with discreet amusement. Indeed, even Steve (Bill Murray), on camera, speaks as if he is uninspired by himself. His documentaries have declined in quality and enthusiasm, which leads him on a quest to find himself. Oh yes, there’s also something about the Jaguar Shark, and Steve wanting to exact revenge for his good friend’s death at the hands (teeth) of the beast.
Accompanying Steve on this voyage is his crew of oddballs, greatest of which is cameraman Klaus, who takes on a life of his own under the influence of Willem Dafoe’s frail German accent. Watch the way he deals with his insecurity when Steve adopts his might-be son, Ned, as the crew’s boom operator, and then consider the different kinds of roles Dafoe has played throughout his career.
Ned is played by Owen Wilson, long-time friend and collaborator of Anderson’s, and he’s a charmingly likeable fellow who dreams of knowing his biological father without really accepting him. There’s an awkward scene in front of a projection screen where Steve and Ned share an uncomfortable silence, succeeded immediately by Steve boasting in the next scene, “There’s chemistry between us, you know”. The trick Anderson performs with all his characters is that they never seem to know what is really going on, when in actual fact, they do. For the most part.
The story meanders through Steve’s life. His voyage starts off as a revenge quest, and then as more people get involved in his affairs, the journey takes abrupt turns in lateral directions. Throughout the course of the film, Steve and his crew of the Belafonte steal coffee machines from Steve’s rival, Alistair (Jeff Goldblum), they get attacked by Filipino pirates and embark on a rescue op, they lose their funding and resort to Ned’s inherited fortune, they juggle with mutiny, and they crash a helicopter (the consequences are tragic). All the while a pregnant reporter by the name of Jane (Cate Blanchett), whose British accent is a throwback to news reporters of the 1930s and ’40s, documents the action and incites a love triangle with the Zissou boys.
I will not tell you what happens when they finally encounter the fabled Jaguar Shark — if Steve really saw it, if it really exists.
The Life Aquatic isn’t as flamboyant as Anderson’s earlier pictures. His camerawork is more mobile and flexible. His colour palette isn’t as exact. The pace of the story drags more than it sprints, which is good, because Steve is a man who prefers to drag events of his life to painful lengths. Anderson treats us to a wonderful set of the Belafonte that has its side cut off so that we can see all the rooms of the ship at the same time. This set provides the movie with some of its most clever and most intricately choreographed scenes.
There is enough in the presentation to make The Life Aquatic a worthwhile venture. The characters are funny even though they lack real depth. The action is absurd. The animals are not really animals. I doubt the water is really water too. It’s a blend of live action and cartoon, just like the life of Steve Zissou.
Best Moment | The entire pirate raid sequence.
Worst Moment | Nope.