There’s always a certain amount of trepidation when a filmmaker like Wes Anderson, known for making intimate and personal films, starts making movies on a more ambitious scale – bigger budgets and movie stars in an attempt to appeal to a larger audience – that he will lose all of the qualities that made his movies so interesting in the first place. Easily his most accomplished film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) merged his stylized dialogue and quirky characters with elaborate sets and action set pieces in an exotic locale.
After his best friend is eaten by a Jaguar shark, famed oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) vows revenge. The problem is that the fish is endangered and he’s having trouble raising money for the expedition. He also meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who may be his son by a woman he met 30 years ago. So, he convinces the young man to join his expedition in an attempt to make up for three decades of neglect.
Ever since Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s movies feature a water motif in some form or another, whether it is Anthony and Inez’s first kiss in a swimming pool in Bottle Rocket or Max Fischer’s desire to build an aquarium in Rushmore (1998). With Life Aquatic, Anderson finally realizes his fascination with water head on by crafting an homage to Jacques Cousteau.
Life Aquatic also continues Anderson’s thematic pre-occupation with flawed father figures and their sons. There is the burnt out Mr. Blume and Max in Rushmore and Royal and his children in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). In Life Aquatic, Steve tries to reconnect with Ned in the hopes that they will bond while hunting for the Jaguar shark. Like Blume and Royal, the world seems to have forgotten about Steve. He’s washed up and hit rock bottom now that his best friend has been killed.
The film also continues Anderson’s structuring of his movies into segments. In Rushmore, the story was broken down into months serving as acts in a play, with Tenenbaums, it was chapters as in a book and now with Life Aquatic it is days as Steve’s mission is being filmed for a new documentary. This structure reinforces the magical, almost-fairy tale feeling that Anderson creates in every one of his films by drawing attention to itself as a fanciful tale.
Bill Murray turns in another excellent, low-key performance as the melancholy Zissou. With his beard and gruff, macho attitude, Steve comes across as a Hemingway-esque figure with a dash of Cousteau. And yet, no matter how extravagant things get, Murray always keeps things grounded with his sparse performance. Over the course of his career, the comedian has been gradually refining his style of acting. He gained fame in broad comedies like Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984) but has fine-tuned his style to a less-is-more approach with movies like Rushmore and Lost in Translation (2003). His turn in Life Aquatic is just the right blend of comedy and pathos.
Most films don’t warrant much thought or discussion, but Anderson gets more and more interesting with each new effort. They are filled with so many fascinating little details crammed in each and every frame, repeated thematic motifs and minor characters who often wander in and out of the background of scenes. His movies are magical, existing in their own unique worlds and bursting with ideas that are almost too much to absorb in one sitting. As was the allure of David Lynch’s short-lived T.V. show, Twin Peaks, one of the appeals of Anderson’s films is that we want to be in these quirky worlds he creates and we want to know his characters. We want to lose ourselves in his universe and the beauty of DVD is that they allow us to revisit the worlds of his movies any time we want.
Anderson is not only more ambitious in terms of structure and scale but also with the visuals of Life Aquatic. Shot in Italy, he utilizes the striking landscape of the country for a sun-kissed warm color scheme of yellows and browns. There are also the striking images that linger long after the film ends: the glowing jellyfish on a beach at night and the stop-motion animated fish (by Nightmare Before Christmas’ Henry Selick) and portrays them so vividly and in an exciting way.
Anderson’s career had been building up to this film. With The Royal Tenenbaums, he was able to juggle a large cast of name stars while still maintaining his artistic integrity. With Life Aquatic, he continued to use stars but upped the ante in production values and scope. However, he did not lose the intimate feeling that all of his movies possess. No matter how ambitious or big the scale, his films have hand-crafted feel to them. One gets the feeling that Anderson cares about every detail and every aspect and it is this personal touch that makes his movies so unique.