By Jessica O’Byrne
The Life Aquatic – 2004 – dir. Wes Anderson
Since its first release in 2004, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has proven itself to be a large draw for commercial moviegoers and indie film fans alike. Its original Christmas Day release unconsciously reflects an epic subtext found in the film that is thankfully downplayed by the always awkward and affably charming (and above all talented) cast. The film, which chronicles the making of a documentary about Steve Zissou’s (Bill Murray) quest to hunt down the “jaguar shark” that killed his best friend, utilizes a variation on the traditional quest pattern to draw viewers in and align them with Zissou’s zany crew. Several subplots run alongside this main storyline, which I will leave you the pleasure of discovering for yourself when you watch the film. The Life Aquatic’s true triumph lies in its ability to portray largely absurd (and, particularly in the case of Zissou, often obtuse) characters that are regardless almost universally relatable. While laws, physical and otherwise, in the film are not always on par with the laws of our own universe, The Life Aquatic nevertheless takes place in a world that most viewers are ready and able to relate to.
One of the most interesting things to note before seeing this film, at least in my opinion, are the abundant references that the film contains both to other films as well as to “real world” popular culture. The Life Aquatic nods at films ranging from Jules et Jim (when characters Steve Zissou and Klaus Daimler are standing outside of Jane Winslett-Richardson’s room and Zissou says “Not this one, Klaus”) to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, when Ned appears at the top of the ship as a man dressed in a pilot’s uniform and smoking a pipe in a posthumous “curtain-call” similar to one that occurs during the credits of Buckaroo Banzai. In addition, the film also contains several allusions to real life events, which vary from a nod at Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sophia at the Cannes Film Festival in the late 1970’s to French naval-man Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s ship The Calypso (Zissou’s boat on the ship is called the Belafonte, presumably after Calypso artist Harry Belafonte). A cursory Internet search will yield even more of these arbitrary but still fascinating connections, so I’ll stop there.
The best films are examples of great parts—cinematography, score, and story, among other things—adding up to an even greater whole, and The Life Aquatic is far from being an exception. Seu Jorge, who stars in the film as a character called Pelé dos Santos as the Belafonte’s safety expert and a Brazilian musician who plays acoustic David Bowie songs in Portuguese, is also featured on the movie’s soundtrack along with the score (composed largely by Mark Mothersbaugh) and a number of 1970’s rock musicians. Here again we see Wes Anderson’s penchant for seamlessly combining the film world and real worlds into one blurry—but ultimately fairly cohesive—mass.
The Life Aquatic is a densely textured film that renders extremely believable characters in spite of often highly fantastical situations. For viewers experiencing it for the first time, the film has definite potential to become one of those you view over and over again. Obviously, repeat customers will readily attest to this. Ultimately, The Life Aquatic is best viewed as a classic adventure story with a big heart and more than a few grains of salt. The large ensemble cast interacts wonderfully both with each other and with the almost-dream-like world that surrounds them, and the result is a truly fantastic film that successfully launches the willing viewer into a magnificent quest with a result that ultimately ends up ringing extremely close to home for many.