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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), directed by Wes Anderson, is, in my opinion, a truly underrated work of cinematic prowess. It encompasses everything that I admire in cinema; striking visuals, skilful performances, memorable and nuanced narrative, all of which is conveyed with a sense of childish enthusiasm and in the style of ‘magic realism’.

Credit: Giphy

The film follows Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who is an oceanic explorer and documentary filmmaker, as he and his crew embark on an expedition to hunt down and kill an elusive and previously undiscovered ‘jaguar shark’ that had eaten Steve’s best friend, Esteban, on their preceding excursion. During, and even before the start of this journey, Steve naturally encounters numerous obstacles that increase the intricacy of his journey.

Firstly, Steve’s alleged long-lost son, Ned Plimpton AKA Kingsley Zissou (Owen Wilson), arrives on the scene. Secondly, Steve’s wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), becomes estranged after an ever-increasing tumultuous marriage. Steve finds himself needing to suddenly navigate between these difficult interpersonal turmoils. Meanwhile, there are other relationship squabbles on his ship, the beloved Belafonte, as a pregnant journalist, Jane (Cate Blanchett), joins the crew, his second-in-command, Klaus (Willem Dafoe), vies for attention and recognition, all the while his arch nemesis (as well as Eleanor’s ex-husband), Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), threatens Steve’s operation (and his masculinity). As such, the expedition becomes a journey of self-reflection and personal growth for all the characters in different ways.

“Are you finding what you were looking for… out here with me? I hope so.”

The Life Aquatic is filled with excitement and adventure, as well as heartbreak and sorrow, all the while accompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s wonderfully quirky score. The plot is enhanced by a remarkable group of completely arbitrary characters, such as the Brazilian crew member Pelé (Seu Jorge) who sings David Bowie covers in Portuguese consistently throughout the film, the brave ‘bond company stooge’ Bill (Bud Cort), and the surprisingly resilient Intern # 1 (Matthew Gray Gubler), all of whom don’t particularly drive the narrative forward, but indeed contribute to the whimsical and somewhat nonsensical tone of the movie.

Credit: Giphy

Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach (most recently known for the highly-acclaimed film Marriage Story) have managed to tell a story that masterfully depicts the profound complexities of human relationships in a significantly light-hearted and charming way. The light-heartedness does not, however, detract from the seriousness of the emotions present in the film, such as trauma and grief. Instead, I find that the playful and colourful style of the film allows these emotions to be de-stigmatised and not taboo, and draws on the humanism of the characters and the story with the ultimate message: shitty things happen, but [the] life [aquatic] still goes on.

If you would like to read up more about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, follow the links below:

Rotten Tomatoes | IMDb | MetaCritic | Letterboxd