Wes Anderson is one of the most distinct filmmakers of his generation. Say what you want about him, the man knows his mise-en-scene. He puts so much thought into the colors, how the shots are composed, the costumes, the music, you can tell a Wes Anderson film with a single frame. He also tends to explore similar themes in his films- usually featuring extremely dysfunctional and rich families. While The Royal Tenenbaums is his masterpiece, I kind of have a soft spot for The Life Aquatic. He really lets it all hang out, having some shots that look like they’re from a children’s pop-up book and a soundtrack that includes multiple David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese.
Steve Zissou (Anderson favorite Bill Murray) is a Jacques Cousteau type documentary filmmaker who is determined to find the shark that killed his long-time partner, when he meets a man who may be his son (Owen Wilson). Wilson’s Ned may be Wes Anderson’s purest character. So many of his characters are spoiled and destructive but Ned just wants to get to know his dad. He’s obviously seen a lot of pain, growing up without a father and losing his mother, but he remains a good person. He struggles to bond with Zissou, who is too self-involved to have a decent relationship with anyone. He is treated like a traitor when reporter Jane (Cate Blanchett) falls for him, when it is clear they are the more age appropriate match. However, just as he begins to truly connect with Zissou, his crew, and Jane, he’s killed in a helicopter accident. It’s a death that cuts me unlike other film deaths because he was becoming important to so many people. It’s not about the loss of one life but more about the holes that with be left in everyone else’s.
While much of the cast is composed of Anderson regulars (Murray, Wilson, Angelica Houston), it’s Willem Defoe’s Anderson debut as Klaus that steals every scene. We are used to seeing Defoe as a menacing figure, making Klaus’ childish jealousy of Ned’s relationship with Zissou even funnier. He is extremely sensitive and has trouble hiding his emotions whether it be glee that Zissou and Ned are fighting or hurt when he is assigned to B squad yet again. He is someone who seeks validation and receives it from Ned’s flag. It’s a very sweet moment when he salutes Ned, officially excepting as a member of the crew.
The only character that really doesn’t work for me is Blanchett’s Jane. I find no fault in her performance, I just think she was given the least to work with. She has some really awkward lines that are clearly supposed to be deep but come off as the writers trying too hard. Also, I didn’t really like that a supposed father and son are fighting over a woman who is already pregnant with another man’s child, especially since Zissou really only wants to bang her. I thought they may have made the character pregnant to accommodate Blanchett’s real-life pregnancy but that was a coincident. I can see how it ties into the theme of sons without fathers, fathers without sons, but I don’t know. I would have handled that character very differently if I was writing the script.
I wouldn’t recommend this film to someone who has never seen a Wes Anderson film. This film is like all his quirk on crack and sometimes he gets in his own way. However, those who already appreciate his work will find it enjoyable. It should be noted, this was the first film he wrote without long-time partner Owen Wilson. Also, there’s a lot of experimentation with stop-motion animation which he later employed in Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Steve Zissou: I hope you’re not gonna bust our chops on this on, Bill.
Bill Ubell: Why would I do that?
Steve Zissou: Because you’re a bond company stooge.
Bill Ubell: [scoffs] I’m also a human being.