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Michelle Thomas

Published February 25th, 2005 | by Michelle Thomas

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Review

Classification: 15 Director: Wes Anderson Rating: 3.5/5

Steve Zissou (Murray) is the Jacques Cousteau-style Captain of the Belafonte and leader of Team Zissou, red woolly hatted maverick oceanographer and filmmaker. When his long term partner and best friend Esteban is eaten on film, Zissou finds his life unravelling as he swears to avenge his friend by hunting down the jaguar shark that killed him.

Zissou’s life is nothing if not complicated. His marriage to Eleanor (Huston) is on the rocks, his boat is falling apart, he’s running out of money, rumour has it that he’s lost his touch and no distributor wants to buy his work. And then, out of the blue, arrives southern gentleman Ned Plimpton (Wilson) who may, or may not, be Zissou’s long lost son. With Ned’s help, Zissou assembles and trains, with hilarious results, a motley crew that includes pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Blanchett), and sets off to make his most epic film to date. With money running short, he over-rides the advice of his topless script girl and sets off into unprotected waters, encountering a three legged dog, pirates, and his arch nemesis and rival Alistair Hennessy (Goldblum) on the way. Can Zissou kill the shark, become the father he never wanted to be, and recover some sense of his own pride and dignity on the way?

Wes Anderson, in his fourth feature, continues to look at life from his own admirably skewed viewpoint. He has assembled a top-notch team of acting and technical talent to explore human relationships from the perspective of a remarkably flawed and endearingly arrogant man. Though his work is seen as comic, and is wryly funny, there are few belly laughs, and it has a melancholy, bittersweet quality. Bill Murray is, as ever, wonderful as Zissou, finally growing up, growing old, and coming to grips with his own mortality. This 21st century Captain Ahab has to deal with his mid-life crisis and move on. The supporting players are uniformly wonderful; Cate Blanchett – gorgeous, pregnant, pointy-lipped – once again shows off her chameleon qualities as the vulnerable journalist Jane; Owen Wilson plays against type as sweet, innocent Ned; Willem Dafoe is surprisingly funny as the neurotically loyal Klaus.

The Life Aquatic is similar to Best in Show in that it’s shot in a documentary style, and cuts to footage of Zissou’s previous expeditionary films. The crew clearly had loads of fun with the underwater creatures; very few real fish were used but instead of CGI, stop-motion animation created a menagerie that included candy striped Sugar Crabs, electric jellyfish, the sea horse-like Crayon Pony Fish and the 80-foot spotted, fluorescent behemoth known as the Jaguar Shark. The creatures – including Zissou’s own pet orca – feel simultaneously real and fantastic, and fit in perfectly in Anderson’s little slice of the universe.

The world of the Belafonte is wonderfully realised; in one scene the side of the boat is cut off so that the camera can see into it, as if into a doll’s house. The rusting hulk of Zissou’s boat and Team Zissou’s blue tracksuits and old school trainers contrasts amusingly with the gleaming ultra-modern equipment sported by his chief rival and Eleanor’s ex-husband, Hennessy, while the claustrophobia of life underwater is effectively conveyed by the sequence in which Team Zissou – and a few hangers on – finally confront the jaguar shark.

Wes Anderson has been hailed as a genius by many. On this evidence, he’s not quite there yet, but if you liked Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums – you’ll like this.

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