25th Jun2018

‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston | Written by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach | Directed by Wes Anderson

life-aquatic-blu

“This is an adventure.” That’s the last spoken line of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the fourth feature from everyone’s favourite Texan oddball, Wes Anderson. Released in 2004, three years after the highly acclaimed The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic was easily Anderson’s highest-budget film up to that point, and it was met with indifference both critically and commercially. I’ve always found this unusual because I regard it not only as Anderson’s best film, but also the most quintessentially Andersonian.

Zissou (Bill Murray) himself is clearly modelled on the naval explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, right down to the red bobble hat. The film opens with the death of Steve’s lifelong friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassel), in the jaws of a jaguar shark. So we assume, anyway. Steve vows to return to the depths and kill the beast. But what’s the scientific purpose of such an endeavour? “Revenge,” he says dryly.

Team Zissou is a pack of strays packed onto the research vessel Belafonte. The ship itself is still Anderson’s greatest ever feat of production design: an enormous doll’s house, bisected down the middle so he can track his characters through its myriad of rooms in single takes. Elsewhere, the action is shot largely on location around a magic-lit Italy. There’s a sense that Anderson is transitioning from the relative naturalism of his early work to the painfully precise and hyper-stylised visuals of his recent output.

Before embarking, Steve is introduced to his supposed son, Ned (Owen Wilson). Maybe it would be a simple reunion, were it not for the presence of Jane (Cate Blanchett), a strong-willed English reporter who is there to write a story on the expedition. Pregnant Jane and endlessly eager Ned represent change. They are the future.

But the enemy of progress is Steve himself: “I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.” He won’t let Ned call him Dad. No, before he can accept this role, he needs a rekindled sense of pride. Directionless in his grief, he longs for meaning. So begins a Melvillian adventure into the heart of the ocean – an odyssey which will ultimately mend the broken soul of a bitter man and bring him closer to humanity.

Anderson’s balance throughout is perfectly calibrated: a simple plot (revenge), a big heart (accepting the challenge of fatherhood) and a variety of intriguing, character-driven subplots, exploring a range of themes from jealousy to regret to authenticity. This being Anderson, there are also the sub-sub-characters, hanging around to provide texture.

It’s all steeped in a wonderfully battered 1960s production design, long before retro chic was de rigueur. There’s even a crappy Zissou pinball machine on board. He is a dinosaur who doesn’t belong in his age; a curious explorer in a world of strict scientific precision and purpose. Yet ultra-modern Ned and Jane represent the allure of this analogue life, with both giving up whatever life they had to be on board. Steve’s documentaries might be phony, but his quest is real.

Sure, Steve’s “a showboat and a little bit of a prick,” but for all his flaws, he is a decisive leader, proud and brave and loyal. When the Belafonte is boarded by pirates, it’s Steve who saves the day (as well as a three-legged dog). All the while, Anderson never loses sight of the characters, no matter how manic the action – like when he takes a moment during the Ping Island escape to promote the hyper-sensitive Klaus (Willem Dafoe) to the “A” team. Also, for the record, “Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op” is the greatest action movie synth theme since The Delta Force.

That The Life Aquatic manages to be a perfect balance of funny, sweet and exciting is in large part down to editor David Moritz, whose timing is exquisite. Non-sequiturs sit equally alongside major character moments, and all are delivered delightfully deadpan. Fantastical stop-motion animation is couched incongruently amidst drab real-world locations and lighting, and it works wonderfully.

Sporting a dryly humorous script, combined with expert craft, the film culminates with a Sigur Ros-scored ending which is genuinely moving and has a surprisingly epic feel. Maybe audiences used to the relatively grounded mumblecore of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums weren’t ready for the expansive and rampantly idiosyncratic direction taken here. But in a world where Isle of Dogs and The Grand Budapest Hotel now exist, perhaps The Life Aquatic will make more sense now.

Extras:

  • Commentary by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach
  • “This is an adventure”, a documentary made during the filming in Italy
  • A host of deleted scenes
  • “Mondo Monda”, an Italian talk show featuring Anderson and Baumbach
  • A selection of cast and crew interviews
  • An interview with composer Mark Mothersbough (of Devo)
  • Seu Jorge plays Bowie – in Portuguese, naturally
  • “Intern Video Journal”, a behind the scenes doc by Intern #1
  • Phillipe Antonello’s photos from the set
  • Concept art (featured in the form of paintings in the film)
  • A 15-minute making of featurette with narration by Willem Dafoe
  • Trailer

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today.

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