Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

★★★★☆

After his best friend Esteban is devoured my a mysterious monster of the deep, the legendary undersea documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) vows to find and destroy the creature to avenge his friend. Designating the animal the ‘jaguar shark’, Zissou and his team set out in search of his elusive nemesis.

Matters are complicated when pilot Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) shows up claiming to be Steve’s long lost son. Meanwhile, Steve’s relationship with his wife, Eleanor (Angelica Huston), is increasingly strained, while the serious Klaus (Willem Dafoe) becomes ever more insecure in the shadow of new boy Ned. Murray, in particular, is at his deadpan best, infusing his typical dry wit a selfish narcissism that drives the emotional arc of the picture. Huston, too, is wonderful as Eleanor, evidently weary of Steve’s lifelong egomania. But it’s Dafoe who steals the show as the teutonic Klaus – an insecure Werner Herzog to Zissou’s Jacques Cousteau.

If director Anderson’s films can be defined by his visual and thematic tics – family dramas told through bright primary colours, single-plane tracking shot, and emotionally deadpan line readings – then The Life Aquatic is among the most Wes Anderson-y of Wes Anderson’s pictures. Indeed, virtually every frame is a treat for the eyes, from the bright red of the teams’ little bobble hats, to the beautiful stop-motion sea creatures (animated, no less, by Coraline’s Henry Selick). Numerous cross-section tracking shots of Steve’s boat The Belafonte – a highly stylised set – lose none of their charm no matter their frequency, transforming The Belafonte into a sort of fabular diorama, a metaphorical space as well as a literal one.

Anderson’s aesthetic artifice can be either charming or annoyingly twee depending on your tastes, and given that The Life Aquatic plunges headfirst into the director’s signature style, it is unlikely to win over any of Anderson’s detractors. It’s also fair to suggest that The Life Aquatic doesn’t quite match the depth of his The Royal Tenenbaums or indeed the stylistic grandeur of the The Grand Budapest Hotel. And although this tale a middle-aged man in decline can certainly be moving, it feels slight compared to Anderson’s other work.

Nevertheless, there’s an undeniable cathartic magic to the film’s final minutes, as Steve and his team finally close in on the mythical jaguar shark. Zissou’s parallels with Ahab are clear, yet here his final encounter with the monster becomes not one of destruction, but of closure, tinted by that trademark Anderson comic melancholy. More soggy dog than shaggy dog story, The Life Aquatic remains a broadly satisfying and visually delightful entry in the idiosyncratic director’s oeuvre.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell