The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was released 15 years ago today, the fourth film from the now-iconic director of melancholic whimsy Wes Anderson. His previous three movies – Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums – were critical darlings, singling Anderson out as a young filmmaker to watch. Then he made a movie about sad Bill Murray scouring the ocean for a killer shark, and boy howdy did nobody care for it. And that’s a real shame, because not only is The Life Aquatic easily Anderson’s funniest film to date (in particular some truly excellent supporting performances from Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum), but it’s also one of his most ambitious and most emotionally raw.
In a nutshell, The Life Aquatic follows Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau analogue at the end of his career facing the possibility that his best years are behind him and he really has nothing to show for it. Steve begins the film by losing his partner and best friend Esteban in an attack by the rare and elusive jaguar shark. Steve is hell-bent on tracking the shark down and killing it, and finishing what he believes will be his last documentary film in the process. Along the way, an airline pilot named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) shows up claiming to be Steve’s illegitimate son, and a pregnant reporter named Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) tags along to write a feature article about the aging oceanographic legend.
It’s the first film of Anderson’s that wasn’t co-written by Wilson, although Wilson contributes one of the best performances of his career as the thoughtful and earnest (and, sadly, doomed) Ned. Anderson’s co-writer on this film was Noah Baumbach, who has since made several excellent films about imploding personal relationships (The Squid and the Whale and this year’s Marriage Story). And while Anderson’s films tend to focus on sudden death, familial disintegration and absent fathers, The Life Aquatic was the first one to combine all of those elements into a single character (surprisingly, Ned). All Ned wants is to be a son to Steve and a father to Jane’s unborn baby, and he is emphatically denied the chance to be any of those things thanks to a fatal helicopter crash. In a cruelly ironic twist of fate, the crash was caused by Steve’s negligence, which was the driving force that brought Ned out on the voyage in the first place. Steve never wanted to accept the responsibility of abandoning Ned, because he doesn’t want to face what it means about him. When Ned finally asks Steve why he never tried to get in touch with him, Steve answers bluntly, “Because I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.” Presumably Steve’s own father was also an absent one, but moreover his deadpan battle ax of a response further illustrates the degree to which Steve hates himself – he never wanted to be responsible to anyone so he could be allowed to guiltlessly self-destruct in peace. And folks, that is a feeling I am familiar with.
Released just a year after his Best Actor Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic features the most soulful and challenging performance of Bill Murray’s career. (Personally, I think it was better than his work in Lost in Translation.) But the movie was a box office bomb, wasn’t particularly well-reviewed at the time, and got zero attention during awards season. (It has since received a critical re-evaluation because it is, in fact, very good.) Steve Zissou is a mostly unlikeable disaster of a man. He’s a completely selfish womanizer who has lived a life of fabricated adventure thanks to his undersea documentaries. It’s implied that the movies might be largely staged, and Anderson poses the meta-question of whether or not anything we saw actually happened or was just made up by Zissou to make his movie more exciting. But the answer to that question ultimately doesn’t matter, because the way Zissou feels about his life and career is very real. He’s adrift, his best friend has just died, his movies are declining in popularity, and he barely has enough money to finish his final film. And Steve feels like a fraud – in a particularly brutal scene wherein Steve demonstrates himself to simultaneously be a figure worthy of both pity and revulsion, Jane tells Steve that she had a heroic photograph of him as a little girl. He knows the picture, and recreates his pose for her before saying, “Well maybe it’s just me, but I don’t feel like that person. I never did.” And then he goes in for a thoroughly unearned and unexpected kiss, which Jane rightfully denies. Steve isn’t a good guy, but he’s not a bad guy either, not really. (See “challenging performance,” above.) He’s a sad, defeated, imploding man, and all of those superlatives are self-induced. He’s the kind of guy who has a moment of profound self-reflection and immediately has to smother the feeling it creates by oafishly trying to initiate sex with the closest human woman.
This idea of staged reality creating true emotion is also reflected in Ned’s character, as Zissou’s ex-wife Eleanor (the delightfully aloof Angelica Huston) eventually reveals to Jane that Steve is sterile, and therefore cannot be Ned’s father. Whether or not Ned is actually Steve’s biological son is irrelevant, because both Ned and Steve believe that it’s true, and the consequences of that shared belief profoundly affect both of their lives (and ultimately contributes to Ned’s death). The idea to tell a story about the legitimacy of perceived reality in terms of how it affects how we feel and act through the lens of documentary filmmaking was a brilliant choice by Anderson, and the surreal quality of all the undersea life in the film is a beautiful extension of that choice. The Life Aquatic is the first time Anderson fully crosses the line of heightened reality. The Royal Tenenbaums had some surreal elements, to be sure, but nothing on the level of “the ocean is populated by impossible stop-motion creatures.” None of the animals Steve and his team encounter can possibly be real, and yet they are, which further blurs the line between reality and fantasy in the film. But Anderson is never trying to blow your mind like Christopher Nolan. He’s merely posing the question, “Does it matter if any of this is real, if what it makes you feel is undeniably so?” Ultimately, that’s the same question asked by every single movie ever created.
The scene wherein Steve finally faces the jaguar shark is, I believe, the only time Bill Murray has ever cried on camera (please correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m not counting the single tear he squeezes out in Scrooged). And I mean a for real, serious cry. It’s an utterly devastating moment, too. Steve is given the chance to destroy the animal that killed his best friend Esteban and also, indirectly, Ned, the son he refused to acknowledge for decades before finally accepting him only moments before his tragic death. And rather than killing the shark, he decides to make peace with it and ultimately with himself, and everything he’s lost because of his selfish, self-destructive behavior.
The Life Aquatic might be Wes Anderson’s darkest film behind The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it’s not dark without purpose. It’s a movie about regret and old age, but it’s also about hope, and about getting a second chance to mend those relationships in life that we damage or estrange (or completely burn to the ground). It’s a story about aging that gets more poignant with time – this film hit me in the face when it came out, and it only kicks my ass even harder now that a decade and a half has gone by and I’m considerably older, with a ruinous wake of broken relationships left behind me. The Life Aquatic was also the first time I realized that Willem Dafoe was hilarious, and truly, I cannot think of a better endorsement.