Movies Reviews

Underwater quirkiness with Steve Zissou

Steve Zissou is a man apart. He’s an oceanographer extraordinaire. He’s a bold adventurer who leads his crew (Team Zissou) on daring expeditions to the far ends of the world. He’s made highly celebrated marine documentaries. He’s a hero with his own fan club. He’s faced down the deadly jaguar shark. He wears a Speedo.

But Steve Zissou is also a man in crisis. His closest friend was savaged by that same shark. His most recent documentaries have flopped. His ship, The Belafonte, is falling apart. He’s running out of money. He’s the laughing stock of the oceanography scene. In short, Steve Zissou is washed up.

Where a lesser man would simply give up and drown, Zissou takes out a bond and sets off on one last adventure to track down the killer jaguar shark and, with questionable oceanographic intentions, exact his revenge by blowing it up.

Tagging along for the voyage are the mismatched Team Zissou loyals, all decked out in their baby-blue tracksuits, red beanies and official Zissou Adidas takkies.

Amongst them there’s the emotionally needy engineer Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe); Mrs Zissou (Anjelica Houston) who, much to Zissou’s disdain, is the brains behind the operation. Then there’s the physicist and documentary soundtrack composer and the Brazilian safety expert with a penchant for singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese.

Also embarking are a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett) and a young airline pilot (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be the oceanographer’s son.

Despite Team Zissou’s misadventures — which include ransacking a competitor’s hi-tech lab, an attack by some rather nasty pirates and a daring rescue mission — ‘The Life Aquatic’ is essentially about Zissou coming to terms with his life and his growing powerlessness.

Bill Murray plunges headlong into the role, stretching his performance from ‘Lost in Translation’ to create a man past his prime trying to reaffirm and redeem himself. But it’s not easy for the egotistical, insensitive explorer who’s as energetic and funny as he is tormented and insecure. “Don’t you guys like me anymore?” he asks at one point, sounding more like an ageing softy than the tyrant or reckless playboy he can be.

It’s a complex role, but Murray brings all the contradictions of the arrogant, loose cannon to life in a character that’s likeable despite all his flaws.

Creating such tortured people remains writer-director Wes Anderson’s forte. It’s all too apparent in ‘The Life Aquatic’ as he neglects secondary characters in favour of a somewhat ropey action-adventure element.

Yet Anderson hasn’t lost his touch for oddball comedy, having created a slightly artificial, if not surreal, world for his characters to inhabit — somewhere back in the 1970s world of Jacques Costeau documentaries. Witness the cheesy synth music that gets pumped into the divers’ helmets, the decidedly retro team outfits, the trained tracker dolphins and the completely fake sea life — purposely made to look especially tacky.

Where else would you be able to see brightly-coloured sugar crabs, the tiny Crayon Pony Fish and the star-encrusted Constellation Ray? Or a James Bond style shootout in which the protagonist is decked out in slip-slops, bathrobe and that ever present Speedo?

There’s no doubting that this movie is way out in leftfield, but by blending the surreal with the real human turmoil of Zissou — and a moderate dose of action — ‘The Life Aquatic’ brings Wes Anderson’s quirky look on life to the mainstream.

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