The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004): ***½
Directed by Wes Anderson
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is the damnedest
movie. I thought it was incredibly entertaining, but I can't in
good conscience give it four stars.
It would seem to have everything going for it, and indeed it almost
does. It has a fantastically designed cutaway boat set. It has a
cast of hilarously straight-faced actors playing quirky and unique
characters. It has stop-motion animation by the guy who made The
Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.
The comedic plot includes such things as a hijacking at sea by pirates,
and a bunch of oceanographers and filmmakers staging an armed rescue
attempt. It's all really, really hilarous.
But it was kinda doomed from the start. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray),
the man around whom the film revolves, is by design an inscrutible
character. He seems to be almost sleepwalking through the entire
film, which makes the pacing crawl rather than zing by. Even in
action scenes he has a very bland expression. I know Wes Andeson's
films enough to know that this is on purpose, and it usually wouldn't
be a problem—his films are filled with distant and unknowable
types of characters, but somehow also full of honest, brutal, and
strong underlying emotions (well, except maybe for Bottle Rocket,
but that film just had so much energy). But for some reason
this films ultimately fails to have any sort of emotional core.
The relationship between Zissou and his maybe son (Owen Wilson)
sputters around some sort of emotional resonance, but never reaches
it, even in scenes that should be very emotional. The characters
don't seem really to grow or change all that much. Even at the end
of the film, Steve Zissou's final statement falls flat. Does he
really believe it? It doesn't really seem like it, but if not, what
was the point of it all? Everything seems such a drain on him that
it almost becomes a drain on the viewer—my wife for one thought
the film dragged and dragged, and because there's no real emotional
through-line, it kind of does. It simply doesn't have enough energy
to distract you from the fact that it's really hard to care about
The only exception is the final underwater scene in which the entire
cast is gathered around Steve. It hints at deep, deep underlying
emotions that could have been throughout the entire movie.
This may seem like a negative reviews, but I don't give three-and-a-half
stars to movies I dislike. Taken individually, each scene in this
film is a thing of comic, absurd brilliance. The film has the great
stylism that is the trademark of Wes Anderson—at times it
seems almost to have been made in the 70s (even though it presumably
takes place in the present). Hilarious, painstaking details fill
the frame to constantly delight and amaze with sheer filmmaking
It's almost enough. Almost.