UK Release Date: 25th June 2018
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon
Synopsis: An eccentric nature documentary maker travels in search of the rare shark that killed his friend.
There’s never any question, when you’re watching a Wes Anderson film, as to whether you’re watching a Wes Anderson film. The master of quirk has a very unique visual style as a filmmaker, with his pastel colours and symmetrical framing. One of his lesser known and lesser praised movies is The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which is a strange and wry adventure that radiates Andersonian weirdness from every pore of its unusual mise-en-scene. The film has landed a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release in the UK, which means it’s absolutely the right time to revisit this oddity from 2004.
Bill Murray takes on the title role, as an undersea explorer who makes documentary movies about his adventures. He has a devoted team aboard his boat, led by wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), but his movies have fallen on hard times and are receiving increasingly poor critical notices, as well as allegations of fakery. After his best friend is mauled to death by a creature Steve dubs the jaguar shark (“I just said the first thing that came into my head”), he vows that his next expedition will be to track down the creature. At the same time, Kentucky pilot Ned (Owen Wilson) arrives and claims he is Steve’s son, while pregnant journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett) is also along for the ride.
It’s tough to get past how odd The Life Aquatic is. The world is so Andersonian that it’s almost painful, with the stilted delivery and ersatz framing almost aggressive in its challenge to the audience – either go with this, or stop watching. Thankfully, the challenge is delivered through Bill Murray, who is tremendous as Zissou. He’s clearly a scumbag and an utterly insensitive grouch, but there’s something compelling about his idealism and his determination to succeed, which is either completely blind or blissfully pig-headed, depending on how you read the character.
The supporting cast, too, is a galaxy of oddness. Jeff Goldblum is immediately memorable as Zissou’s effete rival, with far more money and success, while Blanchett makes an impression with her ludicrous British accent. She turns up walking out of the water like a fully-clothed Ursula Andress and takes a shine to Wilson’s character, who is a brilliantly nervous bloke totally out of his depth in a seafaring environment. When the expedition inevitably goes south, it’s Wilson’s Ned who struggles most to adjust.
But it’s Murray’s show in every way, as he embarks upon his Moby Dick quest to track down his white whale. There are bumps in the road at every turn, with surprising forays into the world of action movies, as well as some terrific animation from The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. These animated flourishes really add to the film’s unique style, which stands out as memorable even within the Anderson canon. Unfortunately, this visual panache comes without much in the way of character to back it up, and the movie feels like more of a stylistic exercise than a character-based journey.
The Life Aquatic might be an exercise in style more than story and character, but when the style is this good, it’s hard to complain too much about that. Anderson fans will know exactly what to expect from a film like this and it’s not going to get anywhere near winning over any skeptics. The new Blu-ray transfer will likely allow this movie to be reassessed by those who decided it was a minor Anderson work the first time around. As an Anderson agnostic, it gave me the same sense of emotional distance that prevents me from ever loving his movies, but it contains some of his most enjoyable flashes of quirk.
It’s a Criterion release, so it’s stuffed with extra, including a commentary track, a making of doc and a tonne of interviews with the key players.
Pop or Poop?
For some, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou will likely represent Wes Anderson at his oddest and most off-putting. However, for those who enjoy the indie darling’s work, a rewatch of The Life Aquatic will likely help them to see it as far more interesting and enjoyable than they remember. Bill Murray’s central performance is a grumpy delight and every member of the supporting cast is clearly having the time of their life. With the help of Selick’s animation and Anderson’s unique style, the audience will have a great time too.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is available on Blu-ray in the UK now, courtesy of Criterion.