Retro Review: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
The delicacy of Wes Anderson’s films are a thing of beauty, inconspicuously lifting the serious moments in the lightest manner. Each film jumps out at you quietly as if to ask politely for some attention. Of course, with four successful films in the bag, I think we’re ready to give Anderson that undivided and well-deserved attention.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is just another one of his masterpiece films, featuring that highly unique laid-back serious style. Of course it’s a comedy. But a modern-day intellectual comedy that prides itself on clever wit rather than abrasive in-your-face jokes. At the same time it’s a film with a story that you find hard not to be invested in, similar to the feel of a drama. His films are indeed unique. And The Life Aquatic exemplifies Wes Anderson mission to carry the comedy genre torch in a new direction, perfecting his craft with each movie premier.
The Life Aquatic is a children’s book of a movie, with the interior logic of a dream, full of vibrant colors and fantastic visuals. And in the midst of it, keeping all of it from floating away, is Bill Murray, with his sad-sack, satiric face, playing an undersea documentarian going through a personal and professional crisis.
Steve Zissou (Murray), a latter-day Jacques Cousteau, premieres his latest undersea documentary at an Italian film festival. The reception is indifferent to dislike. Many criticize Zissou’s latest work, labeling him past his prime. Zissou, determined to film one more hit, now faces difficulty raising money for his next endeavor, a vengeance fueled search for a leopard-spotted man-eating shark. Meanwhile, his marriage to a former heiress (Anjelica Huston) is falling apart, and a young man, Ned (Owen Wilson), who may be his son, has surfaced.
The film is often quite funny, but there are no bits nor punch lines garnering the humor. The nonchalant deliveries of low-key comedic lines, lets the audience notice the absurdity, while allowing the actors to play the emotions straight. “Sorry I didn’t acknowledge your existence all those years,” Steve tells the man who might be his son. “It won’t happen again.” Thus, laughing at any point makes about equal sense.
The common tell of a Wes Anderson film is the directors use of horizontal compositions, in which two or more characters array themselves across the frame, they and the background at sharp right angles to the camera. Anderson’s favorite camera movement is the parallel track, the camera moving laterally and lengthening, rather than altering, the composition. While viewers might not realize it, these unique camera technique are what give Anderson his distinctive cinematic look. Not only do we appreciate the creativity in his film-making, but are presented with scenes in a more intriguing light. The most exciting shots come from his combination of tracks-and-pans or crane and boom shots, extending the frame even more and giving the audience a full view of the set to poke our heads and look around into the revealed world.
This world of Anderson is always rendered meticulously detail. Other directors provide just enough detail to satisfy the audiences understanding. Anderson piles on the details in every shot, so that audiences gets a complete sense of life as it’s lived. There’s a shot, lasting near three seconds, of Murray feeding fish to a whale in a tank. Steve has a pet whale. In another shot, Murray is simply walking into a room surrounded by flying birds. Sure, you can question the importance of this. The extra detail is certainly not necessary. But in a cumulative sense, they are very important. At the very least, the depth the film provides, allows for audiences to be amused and accesses the textured story in a very involved way.
Final Verdict: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is almost a perfect movie. For most of its running time, Anderson maintains a distinct and arresting tone of vague absurdity, but loses control of the film near the end. The story slightly dips into silliness and individual scenes become labored. Yet even at its worst, The Life Aquatic is always interesting simply because there’s really nothing else like it. Although its humor is shrewd and arch, (and might not be for everyone), the world of The Life Aquatic is so thoroughly imagined that it’s hard not to feel astonishment for the generous care Wes Anderson puts into the conception and design of the film. Both story and movie alike appear to be the product of a uniquely designed, well-thought out impulse.