Film Review – The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Criterion Collection)

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If there was ever a marmite Wes Anderson film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) might just be that film. After the success of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), there was a pressure for the film to succeed back in 2004. True Anderson fans despite the mixed critical response love Steve Zissou even with all its flaws.

This month Criterion Collection (UK) continues its journey through the directors back catalogue with his most idiosyncratic film to date. It’s a visually pleasing oddity straight out of Anderson’s book of quirkiness. Most of all life isn’t perfect, it’s just one big rollercoaster ride.

In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Bill Murray leads the cast as our namesake protagonist Steve Zissou, the internationally renowned oceanographer. When Steve’s longtime partner Esteban is eaten by a Jaguar Shark during the filming of their latest adventure. Team Zissou decide to sail on an expedition to track down the mysterious elusive (possibly non-existent) Shark. Steve is also joined by a young pilot Ned (Owen Wilson), Pregnant journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett) and Steve’s estranged wife Elanor (Anjelica Houston).

The only way you can describe The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is a Child’s play story. The Characters are the toy dolls and the kid playing with the toys is Wes Anderson and the film is his adventure. You feel the film has a childlike quality to it, tying nicely with Steve Zissou several ways.

Steve himself is inspired by the late great Jacques Costeau who in his heyday inspired many young kids. From many films, books, games, and memorabilia loved by his followers. Even Henry Selick‘s stop-animation is like a child’s imagination let loose, into the ocean. A big undiscovered place full of strange creatures full of colour.

Thos leads us into the more ‘serious’ tone of the film. Are we watching the childlike visions of Ned (Wilson)? We quickly learn he might also be the long lost son of Steve, after an alleged affair he had 30 years previously.

At first, the pair gets on really great, with Steve integrating Ned into his life becoming one of the crew. You can deep down get a sense of ‘smugness’ from Steve, he might have finally found an heir to his throne. They cherish each not just as a father-son relationship but also like brothers. However, in reality, not every relationship is lovey-dovey many are strained, non-existent. The pair’s relationship starts to disintegrate in front of them especially when a certain journalist (Blanchett) appears on the scene.

Steve’s life crumbles, even more, when he falls for the journalist when she likes Ned. At this point, we realise Steve is a bit of a womaniser. Things just unravel even more when Steve has to grovel at the door of his arch nemesis Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). He just happens to be met by Elanor Hennessy’s ex-wife, Steve’s estranged wife!

The film is not just about fathers and sons, it’s also about growing old lonely and losing your bragging rights. Steve Zissou is not just an Oceanographer, he works like a brand from the films, books, and memorabilia. There’s even Zissou Adidas trainers product placement!

Steve is clearly going through a mid-life crisis, scared of losing his thunder to a younger model even if he knows there’s still life in the old sea dog.

Is this film that birth the quirky style we would see in many of Wes Anderson‘s later film like the Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel? The pastel shades, the humour, the awkwardness, full of style. That hip they can even get one of the Zissou Crew (played by Seu Jorge) to sing some of David Bowie’s finest songs in Portuguese!

This film is the perfect vehicle for the charismatic Bill Murray. He loves to play the narcissistic unlikable man whose humour is dry, deadpan. He comes across as a fragile, vulnerable man caught in grief and fear…’I wonder if it remembers me?‘. A master improviser at work.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is probably Wes Anderson‘s most misunderstood film to date. Some may call it peculiar, but when you look at it closely the cast are just like kids acting out one big adventure. Especially the
end scene which sees the team face up against pirates. Wes Anderson is that man-child whose childish imagination that’s let loose tackling some serious issues in the director’s unique quirky deadpan style.


Comedy, Drama | USA, 2004 | 15 | 25th June 2018 (UK) | Blu-ray | Criterion Collection | Dir.Wes Anderson | Billy Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum

Picture & Sound | ★★★★★

The one thing Criterion Collection prides itself self on is its presentation. The film may only be 14 years old but what we get is a tremendous 4K version of the film taken directly from the 35mm negative. Presented in 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video and in the original cinematic 2.39:1 widescreen ratio.

Wes Anderson like the majority of the other Criterion releases has taken supervision of the job. The colour scheme is wonderful gives a boost to Anderson’s vision. They feel like a hazy summer’s day, slight yellow tinges, pastel colours as if you were sunbathing in Naples the film’s main location.

The sound is delivered in a marvelous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. You really get a feel for the sound fx to be it the little things in the background to the crisp dialogue from the cast. Mark Mothersbaugh Wes Anderson’s regular go to for film scores his soundtrack perfect here. Unique to the core, distinctively Anderson.

Extras | ★★★★

The last time this film was released in the UK, it was not from Criterion Collection. Researching the film it seems this version shares most of the same extras that were released on the U.S DVD Criterion release.

The commentary is from Wes Anderson and his co-writer for the film Noah Baumbach. Next to this is a selection of interviews including an Italian TV one ‘Mondo Monda‘ with Anderson and Baumbach. Mark Mothersbaugh chats about the film’s score with Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum giving new interviews.

This Is an Adventure‘ is a documentary about the production of the film which lasts nearly 1 hour, there’s also a short video journal from ‘an intern’. If you adored Seu Jorge renditions of some of David Bowie’s greatest hits you can re-enjoy them individually. There is also the usual array of extras including Trailer, Featurettes, images, artwork, deleted scenes.