Film Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Netflix, 2004)

True auteurs, the great ones, are few and far between. Just because a director has a distinct style (i.e. Michael Bay with his needless explosions and CGI) does not mean they’re creating art.

And just because a director is creating real art does not mean it’s necessarily going to be entertaining. David Lynch’s Eraserhead, for instance, is one of the most thought-provoking things I’ve ever watched, but I don’t want to lay down on a lazy Sunday afternoon and throw it on the TV.

One of the real auteurs is Wes Anderson, a guy who manages to create enthralling, hilarious works of art which you can decipher as his within just a few minutes of the film beginning. Whether it be the deadpan, dry humor or obsession with miniatures; the long, horizontal tracking shots and the colorful sets, Anderson’s style is distinct and on the path to becoming legendary — if not already there. Whimsy is a term often used to describe his works, and it fits, each one putting a playful spin on a known concept, like the heists in Bottle Rocket or the young love in Moonrise Kingdom.

Nearly all eight of his feature films are well-regarded, each getting praise by the majority of critics. However, the one we’re talking about here, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is the exception.

A number of frequent collaborators — including Bill Murray as Steve Zissou — came together to recapture the magic seen on The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. With almost 15 years since the release of Life Aquatic, the results are certainly worth discussing.

As the most polarizing of Wes Anderson’s creations, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou created a back-and-forth buzz upon release. In fact, many people saw it as the first major chink in Anderson’s seemingly impenetrable armor.

The plot is a bit convoluted but it boils down to two major story arcs: a father/son reconciliation between Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) and Zissou (Murray), and a revenge hunt in the vein of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The latter storyline is hilariously broached early in the film when Steve drunkenly finishes a rant at a showing of his latest oceanic documentary.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go on an overnight drunk, and in 10 days I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it. Anyone who wants to tag along is more than welcome.

While the plot is sometimes out in left field, the acting and dialogue carry the film. Murray, Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, and Anjelica Huston buy into this abnormal world and seamlessly move through it in a way that seems normal. But as good as they all are, Willem Dafoe is a revelation as Klaus Daimler, Steve’s jealous right-hand man.

Since the actors listed above are such frequent collaborators with Anderson, it allows them to push deep into the auteur’s mind and totally understand what he is looking for in their performance.

Of all of his films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is the most quintessential Wes Anderson film in the sense that it gave ample ammunition to both the detractors and defenders in equal measures. Critics disliked the “meandering” plot, yet loved the characters. Some hated the bits of randomness, yet cheered for the most random event of all. Many felt it was too smug, while others glorified the eccentric nature of it all.

Polarizing films can be fun films. Understanding the reasons for criticism and accepting it as wonderful despite those flaws can be a great feeling. On the opposite end of the spectrum, hating something that people you respect love helps you understand the differences in perspective. And that’s the beauty of good filmmaking, it sparks intelligent thought and conversation.

While I can say with a degree of certainty that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is not Wes Anderson’s best film, there is something to be said about how it’s either loved or hated, with little room in the middle. In my opinion, it is a ruby hidden among diamonds; marred by criticism for its difference from the others, yet its brilliance lingers and leaves a bright feeling even after the credits have rolled.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is streaming on Netflix.

Rating:★★★★

Rotten Tomatoes: 56% (112 of 201)