Lost in Ambition: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

After The Royal Tenenbaums’ critical and commercial success, it opened new doors for Wes Anderson, something that he never had the opportunity early in his career due to the poor box office performance of his first two films. The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou demonstrates an improvement in its art and production design, through Anderson’s growing confidence, ambitious story, and slightly larger budget. I considered The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou to be a disappointment during my initial viewing, considering it to be the auteur’s worst film; but to say one’s work is his worst does not necessarily mean it is an awful film, it just simply means it does not stack up high among the others that he has masterfully crafted. My opinion towards Anderson’s fourth film has improved from my previous viewing but only by a small amount. I still consider this to be the weakest he has directed, especially given that this film is in the phase of his career where his previous films, that were much simpler in execution, was able to show greater effect in almost all aspects.

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This would mark the first time that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have not collaborated to write the screenplay of a film. Instead Anderson collaborates with indie director and screenwriter, Noah Baumbach. In paper, both would seem like a perfect fit as Baumbach’s indie honest sensibilities would be a great contrast to Anderson’s quirky visuals and tone, creating a sense of balance to the mix; but instead what we get is something very messy, found in both the writing and directing aspects of the film.

The film recalls a familiar theme in Anderson’s films which is the idea of family, particularly regarding the father-son relationship. Steve Zissou’s large crew is a family that he has bonded with for years, and his role is to act as the father, the leader, the person that would guide them during their wild adventures; and suddenly the appearance of a new member, that may actually be blood related to Steve, shakes up this dynamic but makes up for the loss that had occurred from their previous endeavour. This family dynamic could have been a delightful idea to explore but there simply wasn’t enough character found in the supporting figures, letting them feel like faceless individuals roaming around the boat with its core characters. The script spends the majority of its time on Steve and Ned Plimpton, the newcomer of their group, exploring their relationship and the impact it has on its crew; but the film makes it difficult to feel that impact due to the lack of substance that Anderson and Baumbach have given to the crew, and their inability to cleverly weave their character development with the film’s central story. In Anderson’s previous films, supporting characters were given a large amount of respect and value, even if their presence aren’t as prominent as its central characters; take a look at Tenenbaum’s Eli Cash, whose emotions and character development are subtly fleshed out and lace it beautifully with the film’s story and themes, the same could be said for Rushmore’s Herman Blume.

The idea that grabbed onto me the most was the film’s themes of loss and artificiality. As I said, Ned Plimpton’s addition to the crew was driven by the recent loss that the crew has suffered; and from that loss, Steve has had a difficult time dealing with it and in order to keep himself pre-occupied he embarks on a journey with Ned, exploring that relationship, maybe to fill the hole in his heart, and to start on part two of his production, as a metaphor for his search of closure. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou could have been an effective and deeply-rooted character study if handled more carefully. Along with this, the film demonstrates the theme of artificiality through Steve Zissou’s profession. He makes documentaries that rarely give any factual evidence; instead he keeps his audiences engaged through fragmented and amplified drama. Though documentaries are supposed to show truth rather than fiction, what the audience do not realise is that there is always a craftsman behind it, editing the film in such a way that have his audience feel a certain way as they watch it. Films, regardless in what form, has a limit that shows how much a film could display factual events and situation, without reaching the feeling of boredom or tediousness. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou acts as a sort of satire to the idea of “honesty” found in documentaries, but it never seems to completely revel on that, lacking that sense of self-awareness that was prominent in Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.

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With all of Wes Anderson’s films, the world he creates is just as important as the story he tells. The film is certainly ambitious in its detail but the scope seems more limited than his previous feeling. It certainly feels big due to the high production value, but it also feels intimate due to the film taking place in areas that is full of empty landscapes. Contrasting the film’s quirkiness with something natural, had me feeling less immersed and seeing the cracks in his storytelling that I usually am blinded to due to his ability to submerge me into his fantastical creations. Like in any environment, it is only as substantial as the characters that live in it, and since this film features an array of characters that are hit and miss, it was difficult for me to find a deep appreciation in Anderson’s overall vision, unable to find the beauty within its quirky characters. However if there was a moment in the film that did capture that sense of beauty, and done so with such emotion and depth, it would be the scene during the third act where all of them are inside the submarine, admiring the long-awaited Jaguar-shark; the scene was so symbolic and heart-aching that every time I see it, the more I cannot help but admire more of what the film has previously shown us, but it does take a lot more than that to drastically change my overall opinion of the film.

Robert Yeoman comes back to collaborate with Anderson is handling the film’s precise and idiosyncratic photography. The common trademarks are back from his previous film; the zipping pans and tilts, the sudden push-ins and pull-outs, the symmetrically centred subjects, and a widescreen format to further emphasise the character’s eccentricities. As the film’s set design has become more ambitious, so did Yeoman’s cinematography, capturing the film’s grand scale but also bringing it down to the audience’s level, achieving a sense of intimacy, especially in regards to the ship as a whole; the ship is definitely large and that is established through multiple wide shots at the ocean, but because he shoots the film’s interiors with familiarity and intricacy, we never feel lost as we the film navigates us through it. Also, due to the larger storyline and more ambitious sequences, the film treats us to a side of Anderson films that haven’t been explored before. The film would mark the first time that a tense action sequence has been used by the director, which is something he would come back to again in future films. The way Yeoman shot that was wonderful, as it felt like watching something from a different film but was grounded enough with Anderson’s trademark look and humour, that I was still immersed in the idea that it is still a Wes Anderson production. Mark Mothersbaugh also returns to work with the director and this time he has composed a musical score that grows and becomes different from his previous collaboration as the film progresses. At the start it still carries that warm and sweet tone, similar to what he brought for The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, once the film has reached its end of the second act, the sounds that we hear have become more forceful, replicating to the ones we hear in a typical action film. It certainly is a big change, but I felt it suited it as the film does grow into an action film at one stage during the film’s latter half. The film’s mostly-David Bowie inspired soundtrack gives a film a sense of balance to Motherbaugh’s score, especially through the tracks performed by Seu Jorge.

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The performances in this film were strong but I felt it was a step down from the brilliance that was brought by the cast of Anderson’s previous film. I felt nobody has elevated to the level that Hackman has brought to his role in Tenenbaums, and that is a shame as there were three contenders that had the potential to succeed that; Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. The three had excellent chemistry with one another, creating conflict and endearment naturally especially within the film’s confined spaces. The rest of the cast though are aspiring choices, but they have taken up roles that barely have any meat for them to chew on. It feels like they were simply there to compete with the excellence and diversity that was brought in his previous film. Thankfully he was able to learn from his mistakes and achieves this positive effect again in his casting in his subsequent films.

The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou is far from perfect, but there is enough of Anderson in there for me to not completely dismiss it. The film is not at all atrocious, but it is severely underwhelming given its ambitious production values and magnificent casting choices.

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