When I was studying for my Master’s degree in Florida Studies (yes, there is such a thing), I took a course on Florida Rivers. Again, totally real. It happened. I even have a book to prove it. It was a yearlong, intensive study of the winding bodies of water that are the beating heart of the Sunshine State. For the first semester, every other week our class took a canoe trip on one of the state’s many beautiful streams. Talk about academic rigor, right? In the second semester, the work got a little more challenging. We were divided into groups and assigned a specific river in order to analyze at length. For whatever reason, I was stuck with the beanie wearing atheists, which was okay. I am friends with these people, despite our differences. I mentioned the beanies, though, because (despite my lack of this particular headwear) our professor dubbed us Team Zissou. Much to my professor’s disappointment, I had to have this reference explained to me. In those days, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) was one of Wes Anderson’s newer films, and I did not see it then. I have since corrected that oversight.
The famous title oceanographer in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray, is showing his latest documentary to a packed theater. It is not without tragedy. During the filming, his best friend and head diver, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), is eaten by what is described as a jaguar shark. When Steve is asked what he is going to do about it, he says that he is going to find it and kill it. No one believes that such a fantastical creature exists, but he plans on making a new film to chronicle the hunt. The problem is that the lack of success of Steve’s endeavors in recent years has led to an embarrassment of finances, and his principal backer, Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), is not able to come up with the funds. This is when Steve is introduced to Edward “Ned” Plimpton (Owen Wilson). Ned grew up a huge fan of Steve, and with good reason. Steve is Ned’s father, the result of Steve’s philandering. Initially, Steve wants nothing to do with his illegitimate son until Ned offers his sizable inheritance from his deceased mother in order to get the expedition underway. Ned also agrees to join Steve’s crew aboard the sizable but rickety Bellafonte, Steve’s research vessel. Still, he is having trouble accepting Ned’s identity, and insists on calling Ned “Kingsley Zissou.” Before they depart, the list of odd crew members is added to by Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter who is there to interview Steve about his exploits. One person not joining them is Steve’s long time wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who is fed up with his lack of faithfulness and decides to move in with his rival Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). This is a particular blow as she is the one who actually knows about sea life, unlike Steve who is merely the driving force behind the operation. It is Steve’s leadership that leads the crew of the Bellafonte into dangerous waters where they are attacked by Filipino pirates. The bandits make off with all their money, take hostage Bill Ubill (Bud Cort) the bond agent sent to oversee the funds, and leave their ship damaged. Making matters worse is the fact that they are towed to port by Alistair and his bigger and more successful ship, hiding the equipment, of course, that they stole from one his remote research facility to track the shark. There is also the budding romance between Jane and Ned, another source of disappointment for Steve, who had been attracted to her. With Steve’s crew on the brink of mutiny and his ship not going anywhere any time soon, Steve is at his lowest point. It is then that he returns to Eleanor, who, seeing him so downtrodden, agrees to go along with him. Their next move is to travel to the island where the pirates had taken Bill. There they effected a daring rescue operation that ends up including a grateful Alistair, whose ship had also been sent to the bottom of the see by the Filipino corsairs. With everyone’s spirits restored by a successful mission, it is time to return to their original goal of locating the jaguar shark. Unfortunately, just as Steve is coming to terms with being Ned’s father, Ned dies in a helicopter crash, the result of them scanning the seas for their prize. Depressed once more, Eleanor reminds him of his sterility. They are also close to finding the jaguar shark. The entire crew gets into the Bellafonte’s submersible, and down they go to come snout to porthole with the luminescent creature. For Steve, it is the culmination of a great deal of emotional and physical strife, and the resulting film earns him the accolades he once enjoyed.
What do you get when you take the serious oceanographic work of Jacques Cousteau and give it a Wes Anderson treatment? You get The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Wes Anderson’s films have a familiar style, and this one is no different. Still, given that I recently finished plowing my way through five Scream flicks that are virtually indistinguishable from one another, it is refreshing to see a movie that is also unique. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissouis not the same as Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which is not the same as The French Dispatch (2021). They are different stories. It is more that they rhyme with one another, the common syllable being Wes Anderson’s directing style. He is not trying to tell a serious movie about oceanography with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He has about as much knowledge of the seas and the creatures that swim in them as you are I. The way he presents them, relying on cheap but whimsical animation instead of computer generate images (CGI) belies his desire to focus on story and character.
Speaking of character, the one person in The Life Aquatic that somewhat took me out of the movie is the one in the title. While the plot is about how he is redeemed by the love of others, a clearly discernible process, I spent most of the movie not caring about what happened to him. He is an obvious philanderer, he treats much of his crew poorly, and does not take the feelings of others into account. It is remarkable how events can change a person. Take Paul, for example, the author of many of the letters in the New Testament. He spent much of his adult life oppressing followers of Jesus. Paul eventually has Jesus come and tell Saul, his name before his conversion, to stop what he is doing and come after Him. It almost like being in a helicopter that crashes into the sea and surviving. God offers us on a daily basis pathways to righteousness. Sometimes it takes a literal message falling out of the sky for us to recognize it.
Like most Wes Anderson films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou contains brief moments of nudity and foul language, making it unsuitable for younger audiences. The older I get, the less I understand the necessity of these moments. In a sense, it fits with the director’s style of telling stories through the eyes of an adolescent. Kids, especially young boys, daydream of the kinds of images that Anderson occasionally flashes before our eyes. I believe his films can do without these distractions just as well. Otherwise, this is a solid flick.