The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a story of exploration and science, yet really it’s a story of revenge and Steve Zissou’s need to grow up. In that sense it’s like every Wes Anderson movie (so far). He neatly presents the world of a guy who has his way of life set in stone and is convinced he’s doing it right, but then he learns that he’s not. So it’s like every Anderson film takes a set of principles and slowly erodes them until the protagonist is left to face the core of what drives him.
Steve Zissou is a documentarian with a ship named The Belafonte and a small crew at his side. When the movie opens, he is presenting his latest film to mixed reactions. His friend and crew member Esteban was killed by a Jaguar Shark in part one of his film. So he announces that he will embark on a mission to kill the shark in revenge. That will be part two of his film.
Steve is clearly unhappy. He’s more just sad. Not only is his friend dead, but his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is leaving him and he still needs to raise money for this next mission. At the film’s premiere, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) introduces himself to Steve as his son (probably). Steve takes to Ned and invites him to join his crew. This ruffles some feathers among the crew.
A reporter named Jane (Cate Blanchett) also tags along as well as Bill, a “bond company stooge.”
On their way, they first stop at a station to steal tracking equipment from Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), Steve’s nemesis. Bill objects to this, but Steve ignores him. In a hurry, Steve decides to cut through dangerous waters, and they are attacked by pirates. Bill gets taken prisoner, and Steve, channeling his inner James Bond, breaks from his restraints and takes back his ship, killing one pirate in the process while the other pirates flee.
As he and his crew hold a small funeral for the killed pirate, they are spotted by Alistair Hennessey, responding to Steve’s distress signal. Alistair tows Steve’s broken ship to land, and Steve is humiliated. It also doesn’t help that his grew nearly decides to abandon him or overthrow him as captain. Back on land, Steve goes to see Eleanor who is now living at Alistair’s estate. He is able to convince her to rejoin the Belafonte, and they set out to rescue Bill from the pirates.
On their way to a small island, which Eleanor realizes is the pirates’ hideout based on analysis of Bill’s radio for help, they come across Alistair’s sunken ship. Then at the island they rescue Bill and find Alistair is also detained, with his crew entirely killed.
They rescue both Bill and Alistair, and everyone is together. I should mention that Steve found Ned in bed with Jane and was angry, but by this point everyone has reached some catharsis. Now all they had to do was to find the Jaguar Shark.
Steve and Ned set out in a helicopter to look for the shark, but the helicopter crashes, killing Ned. Steve now experiences a loss similar to that of Esteban at the beginning of the film.
He and his crew spot the tracking signal from the shark, and they all go down in a submarine together. When they see the shark, Steve gets emotional and decides not to enact revenge.
The film then ends with the presentation of part two of Steve’s documentary, much like part one. This time there is a much better response, and Steve waits outside for the movie to end. He then walks down the steps, with a kid who idolizes him on his shoulders.
This film is even more Wes Anderson-y than Tenenbaums which was more Anderson-y than Rushmore which was more Anderson-y than Bottle Rocket. He’s really embracing his own style in terms of color palette, camera movements, flattened perspectives, etc.
This film is also much more of a comedy than his previous films, but it also has the same amount of heart. I think that heart comes from showing meaningful character arcs. While it’s still a comedy, it’s driven by Steve’s journey. A lot of the comedy comes from his shortcomings, like it did with Dignan in Bottle Rocket.
Actually, all of his films have had humor, but this one feels much more like a traditional comedy. It’s like he took a comedy and added depth whereas in his other films he added his style and humor to a darker film.
The Life Aquatic also continues the trend of characters who are suffering and find a sense of happiness in the end. Each of his films has started with characters in isolation and ends with them together. In Bottle Rocket, Anthony is alone in his room at the hospital, then at the end he and Bob and Dignan joyfully recount their adventure on a small set of bleachers, like they’re kids hanging out in high school. In Rushmore, Max lives in his own fantasy, and even though he’s surrounded by people, he relates to basically none of them. By the end he dances with Rosemary, surrounded by friends and family with whom he has bonded. In The Royal Tenenbaums, each of the adult children has sequestered themselves away, and at the end they are together at Royal’s funeral. Then here in The Life Aquatic, Steve is alone onstage, carrying the weight of Esteban’s death, and at the end he walks triumphantly like leading a parade, carrying a young boy on his shoulders.
So each of these movies is kind of a feel good story in the end.
But focusing on The Life Aquatic, Steve is stubborn, reckless and self-centered. He slowly begins to become more selfless, and it starts with meeting Ned, whom he believes to be his son. Near the end of the film, Eleanor confides in Jane that Steve “shoots blanks,” so Ned can’t be his son.
But Steve believes he is, so he opens up to him in a way he wouldn’t to another character. Steve only gives so much to Ned because he sees him as an extension of himself. But after Ned, Steve then begins to be more accessible to everyone else. He opens up more to Jane the reporter after initially being closed off, thinking she might try to ruin him. Sure he first opens up to her because he’s attracted to her, but he lets go of those dreams by the end and still remains kind to her.
He even showers Klaus (Willem Dafoe) with the fatherly affection he had been searching for throughout the film. Steve makes nice with his nemesis, Alistair, and he does the same with Eleanor, finally respecting her for all the hard work she does that keeps the Belafonte afloat.
The jaguar shark is really just the bookend to Steve’s internal journey. All of this happens so that he can grow up. The shark just gives an excuse for the journey, and all of this happens on that journey, kind of unpredictably. It’s all so that by the time he gets to the shark, he doesn’t want to enact revenge anymore. He has lost so much, and there’s no sense in losing anymore.
Throughout his documentary, Steve constantly stretches the realm of plausibility by controlling the scene and what they see. He’s rewriting their journey as it happens, but when he sees the jaguar shark he decides to let it be. For the first time he is keeping his grubby hands off the environment and letting it exist as it is.
It’s the first sign that Steve has stopped imposing himself on other people and other worlds. He has always pretended to be a neutral observer (documentarian) but only now is he finally just an observer.
Then at the end he hoists a young, admiring child on his shoulders. This child was briefly introduced earlier in the film, giving Steve a fish as a present. The child reminds him of Ned, who was in the Zissou society as a child, and it’s a striking image to show that he has abandoned his ego.
Like other Anderson films, this one is very neat and structured in how it’s shot. It again adds to this idea of damaged characters in organized, colorful environments. Everything feels whimsical even if it is incredibly personal to Steve and his crew. It again feels like a cartoon or a novel in it’s presentation.
The story is also very neat. The structure is clean and simple. You introduce the shark and pay it off in the end. He gains a son than loses that same son, paralleling the way he lost his friend Esteban. Jane is pregnant, and at the end she has her baby. Steve is rescued by Alistair after the pirate attack, and then he rescues Alistair from the pirates. Everything feels organized and carefully placed, even more so than Anderson’s last few films, but I think that’s because this film always has one main character: Steve. Rushmore followed Mac Fischer, but it also spent time following Herman and Rosemary. Similarly, Tenenbaums followed a bunch of characters from that family. From the beginning, this is Steve’s movie.
Oh yeah, one other thing. Steve introduces us to The Belafonte by describing what each room is for as the camera pans through every single room, made possible by the construction of a large set like a dollhouse. There’s a kitchen, a spa, a recording studio, etc. It’s so dreamlike in it’s imagination, and it’s hard to imagine its actual construction. This is similar to the large house in Tenenbaums as well as the ridiculous amount of clubs Max belongs to in Rushmore. There’s something unbelievable about each of these components, both in scope and in organization. In each film, the character-constructed puzzle masks something else underneath, whether it’s loneliness, deep depression or some other kind of struggle.