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REVIEW: Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an undersea explorer, which means he knows almost nothing about life above the waves. Modeled after the classic television adventurer Jacques Cousteau, Zissou is a once famous, but now fading personality who gets financing for one last quest: track and kill the elusive (and perhaps non-existent) Jaguar Shark that ate his longtime friend and working companion, Esteban.
With director Wes Anderson at the helm, we’re assured a quirky journey. We meet Ned, who could be Steve’s long lost son. Jane, an extremely pregnant journalist looking to tell Steve’s story. Alistair, Steve’s incredibly wealthy and successful arch nemesis. Eleanor, Steve’s estranged wife, now finding sanctuary with Alistair. And a host of others, including Klaus, who wants nothing more than to be on Steve’s A-team.The story leads the large ensemble cast into a variety of entanglements, including sea pirates, kidnapping, a love triangle, and a three-legged dog. There’s also a lot of David Bowie sung in Portuguese. With creative sets and wonderfully odd undersea creatures, Zissou is a fun, often emotional experience.
Scene Setup: Ned (Owen Wilson) has just met Zissou (Bill Murray) on Steve’s boat. They are testing the waters (we’re going with a nautical theme this week) of their possible relationship. It’s sink or swim (warned you).
Why it Matters: Bill Murray had started the decade by slowly shedding his comedic persona. He was just off his Oscar-nominated role in Lost in Translation where he firmly established himself as a dramatic lead. Here, he does equal the work.The camera is fixed so we feel a part of the conversation, lifting and swaying ever so slightly as the boat gently rocks in the bay. Then swings out as we follow Zissou to the bow, moving as far as he physically can from the situation. He takes a slow drag off his cigarette and the film speed slows to crawl. Everything that was once normal is no more.
More: We’re big fans of Wes Anderson movies, and bigger fans of Murray. At this point, they had already worked on two films, both of which had Murray in supporting roles. Here, he is the lead, despite the great ensemble cast. He is in nearly every scene and wisely plays it straight in a world most assuredly un-normal (yeah, we just made that up). Steve Zissou is desperately unfulfilled, treading in an empty pool of memories. He is not eloquent, but he can rally his crew, and he is fearless. On the outside.
Owen Wilson is Ned Plimpton, here to learn about whether his idol is actually his father. The grown men are both in need of each other, though neither are aware of how much so. Yet.
This moment is early in the film and sets up most of the story. Ned’s involvement in the crew’s final voyage is felt by all. Zissou’s new role as father reels in new emotions for Steve, including jealously over the affections of Jane. Ned is blissfully unaware and a little ignorant, becoming inescapably swallowed up in the Zissou world. It has consequences, and it begins here.
We have to dive in (you didn’t think it was over yet, right?) and talk about Wes Anderson. He is a writer / director known for unique visuals and distinctive narratives. His films have become increasingly more stylized featuring larger and larger ensemble casts. While his movies have an intentional disconnect with reality, the worlds he creates are entirely believable, and because of his attention to detail and strong focus on atmosphere, we are easily drawn into his fantasies.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is perhaps the first to truly delineate from reality, and therefore satirize it most effectively. Anderson’s previous film, The Royal Tenenbaums, was stocked with odd characters and slightly absurd situations, but in comparison with Zissou is much more identifiable. Zissou lives in a world where marine life resembles children’s crayon drawings come-to-life. The creatures in this fictional sea are bright, colorful, and stiffly animated. There is no attempt to make them seem even remotely realistic, but they are, in the film, a natural part of the world. What should we, the audience, take away from that? Is the sea where the lives of these characters exist there in order for them to accept reality? What does it say that there is a very real Killer Whale in the film, but it is kept in a tank as a pet for Zissou?
Swimming along, we go to the boat, the Belafonte, as much a character in the story as any of the actors. Anderson cut the ship in half lengthways, allowing the camera to pan along the set as his actors moved about the cabins during conversation. This furthers the disconnect as we plainly see the divisions between rooms. It also allows us to see the ship – and therefore the capsule in which these characters spend much of the film’s fantasy – as an organism rich with activity. We watch the actors but soak in the boat and all its wonderful tributaries of fun. (Who knew there were so many water-themed ways to express ourselves?)
Owen Wilson has always been kind of an actor with limited range, though his everyman casualness works well in many of the roles he chooses. We can’t say he’s ever sunk that deep into a character. But that familiarity is typically comfortable. Here it is essential.
Zissou is a film-maker, and he is documenting not only his last voyage but the new relationship with his possible son. He is insistent that his cameraman record everything between the two, staging them as father and son, even calling it a “subplot” for the film. It is in this “fiction” where Steve would rather deal with Ned. Ned grows frustrated, and complains that he is only playing a character in his movie. “Well, damn you for that,” he condemns Zissou as only Wilson can do. It’s a sharp moment. Pay attention. Just before it occurs, Steve tells his cameraman, “Cut.” Notice too that he is unseen when he says it. Cut from what? Is this a cue for the audience that fantasy and reality are switching? (Warning: profanity)
Deconstructionists might find plenty to say about the film within the film style here. Which is the truth and which is the fantasy? Okay, we’re going leagues deeper here than we wanted to, but before we let it go we hope you notice in the film a rather touching scene when Zissou tumbles down a flight of stairs and learns the cameraman recorded all of it. “Good,” he says, laying limp on the floor, “We’ll give them the reality this time.” Make of that what you will.
The movie was considered a flop at the box office and critics were pretty divided. It holds the only negative score on Rotten Tomatoes in Wes Anderson’s entire filmography. As you can see from our score, we are of an opposing opinion. Most certainly, a lot of that is dependent on Murray, whom we feel has never been better. All the other actors are merely bouncing off his performance, and that shows in the direction as well. He is the big fish in the sea. We’re not saying others in the movie don’t hold up. On the contrary, but they are elevated by Murray. Each seems a necessary extension to Zissou, symbiotic in nature. Murray grounds us in the fantasy, allowing the exaggerated personalities of the characters around him to seem all the more real.
We could talk a lot more about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Every time we watch it, we come away with something new. It’s impossible to not (at least try to) attach symbolism to every frame of the production. What does the the three-legged dog represent? What is the obsession with the espresso machine? And let’s not forget the Jaguar shark. Wes Anderson, when asked about what one of the world’s largest stop-motion puppets represents, said:
“I don’t know but I like that we’re thinking of it as a metaphor. Let’s just let it be a metaphor.”
Zissou thinks it means something. The sight of it has profound and immediate effect. It affects everyone with him as well, tellingly cramped inside a very tiny submarine at the bottom of the fantasy sea. “I wonder if it remembers me?” Zissou asks to no one, his voice broken with emotion. He is not the same man who began this adventure. The final scene, with credits rolling, offers the last best clue about the fantasy. Keep your eye on the top of the Belafonte.
We want to give a little extra nod to Willem Dafoe as well, who is surprisingly touching. Klaus is honorable and exceedingly loyal but wants more from Zissou. He is threatened by Ned’s arrival and sudden acceptance as the new Number 2 after Esteban was eaten. He is one of the few characters given an arc we can follow and while his appearance is limited it is a joy to see. Watch him in the background as Ned convinces Steve to press on. That is Klaus. Never in the middle of it, but always a part of it.
Seo Jorge – Life On Mars