The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Review
Wes Anderson has managed to carve himself a pretty impressive niche in the movies, his quirky, offbeat style is all his own, yet somehow he’s managed to find both an audience and a studio that’s happy to invest in his vision. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is his third collaboration with both Buena Vista and Bill Murray, following Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and it’s clear Anderson is only getting deeper into his world, as this is his most ambitious project yet, in many ways.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a world-renowned oceanographer - not to mention documentary filmmaker - but some would say he’s passed his peak. Neither his sea-borne adventures nor the movies that accompany them are as exciting as they once were, and he’s having trouble finding funding. What makes matter worse is that his latest mission is his most personal ever, as the last ended with tragedy when his life long colleague and friend Estaban (Seymour Cassell) was eaten by a previously unknown fish - which Steve has dubbed the Jaguar Shark. Now Steve wants to assemble Team Zissou again to hunt down the shark that ate his friend, and destroy it. Funding, however, isn’t Team Zissou’s only problem, as a man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) has arrived, claiming to be Steve’s illegitimate son, and his presence is making the atmosphere aboard the Belafonte rather tense. Not to mention the constant presence of a reporter - Miss Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) - there to raise the profile of the team, maybe even provide a cover story, though it’s not entirely clear if it’ll be a positive one or not. But hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?
How you’ll feel about The Life Aquatic will depend very much on your opinion of Anderson’s previous work, because the film couldn’t be more obviously his movie. Whilst his debut Bottle Rocket was only slightly outside the norm, with Rushmore Anderson established a style that has only solidified since. Characters in Anderson’s movies live very much in their own world, amongst an imagined intellectual aristocracy, where a man like Steve Zissou can be world famous and have legions of fans, where a man can make a string of financially successful cinematic documentaries about sea life, where a man can be so loved for his intellect that he gets his own Adidas line. Of course such a world wouldn’t be complete without a gang of oddball, sorry, eccentrics, and Anderson has assembled what can only be described as a dream cast here. Bill Murray may well be garnering criticism for being a bit too like Bill Murray these days, but when he’s this funny just being himself he’s more likely to get complaints if he tried to be someone else. He’s on top form, and while the character may seem somewhat familiar, the fantastic situations Anderson’s unusual script throws him into keeps things feeling fresh. Elsewhere there are surprises in the cast though, Owen Wilson has managed to become a huge Hollywood success (after starting off his career with Anderson on Bottle Rocket) but has certainly fallen into the typecasting trap. Here he gets a chance to play things differently, as Ned Plimpton is a straight-laced, almost boring, just plain nice guy. Gone are Wilson’s stoner mannerisms and reliance on spurts of hyperactive over-acting to get laughs, his subdued performance here is the antithesis of his popular persona and it works fantastically for him. It’s hard to imagine anyone else casting him as the straight man, but clearly as a long standing friend Anderson was privy to a side of Wilson the rest of us weren’t, and hopefully this is a side of him we’ll be seeing more of.
The great performances don’t stop there, and there are some big names present in often little more than supporting roles. Willem Defoe is excellent as the jaded Klaus, a man pushed aside by Ned’s arrival, his childish sulking manner and frequent outbursts - crying out for attention - are hilarious for a man old enough to be dealing with impetuous kids of his own. Jeff Goldblum also impresses - for the first time in years - as the pompous Captain Hennessey, Zissou’s biggest rival, who not only used to sleep with Steve’s wife Eleanor, but has also surpassed him in the public’s affections, as well as that of investors. A special mention should go to Seu Jorge, making his mark on western films after City of God gave him his break, not only does he make a great member of Team Zissou he also provides a fantastic atmosphere for the movie by performing a number of David Bowie’s greatest hits - translated into Portuguese - throughout the movie.
Whilst ultimately a movie about a father and son who’ve never known each other, thrown together trying to find their way, the story takes in an awful lot along the way. Team Zissou’s search for the Jaguar shark takes them on some pretty interesting adventures, including encounters with pirates, daring armed rescues, and fun with explosives, and Anderson balances such over the top fast paced highlights with some tender relationship stories. Steve is a man adrift, ironic for an oceanographer, but he can’t accept his place in the world, leading to an uncomfortable love triangle as he convinces himself that he’s in with a chance with the pregnant Jane Winslett-Richardson, who’s far more interested in Ned. Whilst Zissou is running around telling everyone he saw her first, Ned’s busy becoming closer with her, which really isn’t going to help Steve and Ned’s bonding. Team Zissou is really just a big dysfunctional family, and Steve is doing an awful job of leading them, putting everyone’s lives regularly in danger on his quest for revenge - a quest that is more about him proving to himself he’s still got it.
Much like Anderson’s previous work, The Life Aquatic is a movie that grows on you, Anderson takes things at his own pace, which is rather slow, and his comedy is more often whimsical than hilarious. As such the film feels like a slow starter, the longer it goes on the more you find yourself drawn into this world, and this pace, and once in the right mindset things become increasingly funny. This is something that really comes into its own on repeat viewing, the second time through you’re already accustomed to this world and things seem funnier much faster than they did first time around. I have a feeling this is going to be a movie that just keeps getting funnier, which is impressive for a movie that starts off rather funny to begin with. That said, this kind of humour isn’t for everyone, and if you sat stony faced through Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums then nothing will change here, as Anderson is deeper than ever into his vision and this will doubtless leave many cold. But The Life Aquatic is far from impenetrable, and it’s certainly worth trying, as although it never quite reaches the touching highs of Rushmore, it’s a quirkier, often funnier film, and is a fine addition to Anderson’s body of work, managing to be both reassuringly familiar and surprisingly different all at once.
The Picture and Sound
Criterion has never been a company that’s had a lot of trouble with film transfers, in fact it’s a company that demands the best, and The Life Aquatic looks fantastic here. Scanned from the original negative, with the entire process supervised by Wes Anderson and Director of Photography Robert Yeoman, you can bank on this being the best the movie could possibly look. Unfortunately I can’t be as confident in the soundtrack, as although it is presented in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1, both tracks suffer from inconsistencies. There were a number of occasions where the sound field seemed to lose its breadth and dialogue from the centre channel overwhelmed things. When this happened the dialogue seemed to lack bass, and the treble seemed higher than in the scenes that book ended it. Whilst far from making it unwatchable, it was very noticeable, in an otherwise very enjoyable soundtrack. The rear channels are used well for both light ambient effects and to help the film’s excellent soundtrack really fill the room, and the bass was often surprisingly strong.
Criterion has, I believe for the first time, released a film in both single and double disc editions. Whilst the single carries the commentary, deleted scenes, and short making-of featurette, the double disc version carries a wealth of extras that really make it worth the (slight) extra expense.
Commentary from Director Wes Anderson and Co-Writer Noah Baumbach
Kicking off the features in a suitably different style, Anderson and Baumbach have decided to record this commentary in the coffee shop where they wrote the movie, and judging from the background noise they’ve done it on a regular day of business. It’s suitably quirky, and couldn’t be more packed with observations and stories from shooting - right down to the casting of the three legged dog.
“Starz on the Set” Behind the Scenes Featurette
The horrendous deliberate misspelling in the title of this featurette left me thinking it was going to be a tongue in cheek mockery of boring behind the scenes featurettes (especially as the disc carries so many great behind the scenes looks on the second disc) but disturbingly this is a pretty standard piece of EPK fluff, which makes the name even more disturbing.
This mixture of deleted and extended scenes is actually quite brief, running for only a few minutes, and there are a few great moments that, considering their brevity, I’m surprised didn’t make the film, so these are certainly worth a look.
The theatrical trailer is also present on the first disc, as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles for the main feature.
This is an Adventure - Documentary by Antonio Ferrera, Albert Maysles and Matthew Prinzing
This is exactly the kind of feature that keeps people praising Criterion DVDs, as this 50 minute look behind the scenes lives up to its documentary title. Forgoing the inane talking heads back-slapping of promotional featurettes, it does an admirable job of showing us what it’s like on a movie set. The documentarians seem to have largely been following Wes Anderson and Bill Murray, from trying on wigs (for the videos of Team Zissou’s better days) to practising brawling with extras, the two of them never seem to stop clowning - though unsurprisingly Murray does it in a much more extrovert fashion - and it’s easy to see why they continue to work together. Rather than skitting around trying to cram months of shooting into the time the camera is allowed to linger on moments on the set, like watching Murray - complete with ‘crazy eye’ contact lenses - screaming “Estaban! Estaban!” over and over, until he manages to hit the rhythm inside Anderson’s head, and it’s sequences like that which let you feel you’re really watching how it is to make a movie, rather than a piece of time wasting promotional fluff.
Mondo Monda - Italian Talk Show featuring Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Italian Talk show host Antonio Monda, who leads the discussion of the latest Zissou documentary in the film, here hosts a talk show - in his native Italian - interviewing the movie’s writers. In reality Antonio Monda is actually a friend, and former teacher, of Wes Anderson’s and this is far from a serious clip. It’s certainly different, but I must admit despite thinking I was pretty in tune with Anderson’s sense of humour this left me cold.
Ten Complete Performances of David Bowie songs by Seu Jorge
One of the most charming things about the film was Seu Jorge’s fantastic interpretations of these Bowie classics, and here we get them all in full, rather than the tantalising snippets heard in the movie. Pleasingly presented with a ‘play all’ option, this is better than the movie’s soundtrack - that doesn’t carry all ten of these tracks - and makes great listening. The visuals might not be so enthralling, but you’ll still probably find yourself coming back to this feature again and again.
Interview with Composer Mark Mothersbaugh
This is an excellent 20 minute conversation that looks at the film’s music in depth. Wes Anderson is apparently unusual in that he gets the composer on board so early in production, in this case he was still writing the script as Mothersbaugh was playing around with musical cues, and I guess it’s that long term commitment that allows for the music to so perfectly suit the film. Oddly, Mothersbaugh got his inspiration for the music by taking a cue from The Royal Tenenbaums and playing the notes in reverse order, giving him patterns in the notes that broke the mould.
Intern Video Journal by Matthew Gray Gruber (intern #1)
Although it’s rather less serious than the longer ‘It’s an Adventure’ look behind the scenes, this video diary - by an intern in the movie that used to be a real life intern of Wes Anderson’s - is actually very amusing. Although the cast seem to spend much of their time trying to avoid the gaze of his omnipresent camera, they seem rather affectionate, and this take on the production is suitably off-beat considering the movie. This is really a document of what happens on a set during the long periods spent waiting for a shot, and watching respected actors playing slapsies certainly gives a very different view of life on set than your average featurette.
Interviews with the Cast and Crew
The second disc carries a lot of smaller segments focusing on various characters from the film, including Ned Zissou and Jane Winslett-Richardson, and interviews both the actors playing them and most of the rest of the principle cast for their thoughts on them. This walk a fine line between promotional fluff and fun inside joking, but are still worth watching as they’re only a few minutes each.
Behind the Scenes Photos and Original Artwork
Photo Gallery fans are well served here, as there are dozens upon dozens of behind the scenes photos to pour over. There is also a, sadly much smaller, collection of artwork from the movie and early designs, which are always great to see.
The disc also carries a fantastic insert featuring Eric Anderson’s original illustrations of the Belafonte and an interview with Wes and Eric Anderson, and as with The Royal Tenenbaums the disc comes in a slipcase featuring the commercial artwork, with the actual disc sleeve carrying more of Eric Anderson’s great artwork.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a treat, and although it wasn’t generally as well received as Anderson’s previous work I really can’t see why, as it contains all the things that made his previous movies great. Once again Criterion has done a fantastic job of lavishly presenting the movie, with a selection of extras just as offbeat as the movie itself, and it’s only the slight irregularities on the audio track that stop it being a perfect package. Sadly it’s perfectly possible that they won’t be addressed - I’ve heard nothing about them re-issuing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which had a number of sound effects ‘missing’ on the DTS track - but some may wish to wait to see if other regions bring a release that can match the quality of these extras along with a flawless soundtrack.