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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

The Life Aquatic

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 118 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Since his debut in 1996 with Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s films have always been as ambitious, idiosyncratic and mesmerising as the wayward geniuses and damaged dreamers that populate them. His Rushmore (1998) introduced the world to the quirky talents of Jason ‘I Heart Huckabees‘ Schwartzman, featured one of Bill Murray’s (admittedly many) best performances, and rates as one of my personal favourite films of the nineties. His ‘The Royal Tennenbaums’ (2001) was a multi-layered ensemble piece about an extended family of lives dominated by disappointment. And with his latest, ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’, Anderson has taken his usual array of eccentrics and misfits into entirely different waters, in an adventure which, though mostly set on or under the sea, still somehow remains very, very dry.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) was once a celebrated amateur oceanographer whose self-made documentaries won him a huge following – but the now middle-aged explorer has lost his spark, several wives, his funding, and most recently his best friend and long-time colleague Esteban, killed in a mysterious underwater accident. So Zissou sets out with Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be his long-lost son, on an ill-omened expedition which may or may not be his last, in pursuit of the man-eating leopard shark which may or may not exist. Joining him and his motley crew aboard the Belafonte (a sort of floating bachelor pad which, like Zissou himself, has seen better days) are Zissou’s ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), the pregnant journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett), ‘bond company stooge’ Bill Ubell (Bud Court), a three-legged dog named Cody, and a bunch of Alaskan student interns looking for course credit. To the constant accompaniment of crew member Pelé (Seu Jorge) singing acoustic Portuguese cover versions of David Bowie’s back-catalogue, Zissou must contend with pirates, mutiny, arch-rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), and his own sense of loss, deeper and darker than any ocean.

A ‘Moby Dick’ for the postmodern age, ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ is about a ragtag group of lost souls led by one of life’s great losers on a quixotic quest for all the things that have been left behind – friendships, family, success, hope, research turtles, magic and childhood dreams. As the captain on this rudderless ship of fools, Bill Murray, who was apparently born jaded, is (once again) magnificent, capturing perfectly Zissou’s mercurial combination of infantile enthusiasm and mid-life melancholy. He is the tragicomic anchor in a film full of free-floating whimsy, where even the sea creatures forming the ‘scientific’ background (Crayon Pony Fish, Sugar Crabs, Constellation Rays, and of course the Leopard Shark) are all products of Anderson’s surreal imagination, beautifully realised by Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation.

The result is something rich and strange, both a comedy of the absurd, and an allegory for all those who find themselves at sea – and the climactic scene in which almost the entire cast crams into the tiny submarine ‘Deep Search’ (formerly named ‘Jacqueline’ after Zissou’s first wife) to share in the adventurer’s broken dreams, is all at once as funny, mysterious and achingly poignant as anything I have ever seen.

It's Got: Fanciful fish; David Bowie covers in Portuguese; hilariously campy parodies of Jacques Cousteau documentaries; dense writing and rich detail that will reward endless repeat viewings; the sublime Bill Murray; Willem Dafoe in an atypically comic rôle as loyal engineer and ex-busdriver Klaus Daimler ("calm, collected, German"); and surface whimsy concealing a deep melancholy.

It Needs: Viewers who have experienced the disappointments of adults but can still remember the dreams of (eleven-and-a-half year old) children.


Few films are as rich and strange as this bittersweet comic odyssey into the depths of human yearning.