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15 Years Later: ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ is Wes Anderson’s Underwater Masterpiece

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Early reviews weren’t kind, but The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray, is remembered as one of the director’s best. I’m not sure if there’s any movie from the last two decades that improves more on repeated viewings than this one from director Wes Anderson.

Upon its release in December of 2004, the film seems a large step below 1998’s Rushmore and 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums — Anderson’s two previous pictures. But for some reason, The Life Aquatic seems to land better and better on each subsequent viewing. 

The Life Aquatic

The film is Anderson’s homage to the work of Jacques Cousteau, here fictionalized as arrogant oceanographer named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, in the middle of his Great Dramatic Actor phase in the mid-aughts). The plot has Zissou seeking to — in his words — “find the shark that ate my friend, and destroy it.” In doing so, he assembles his crew (Team Zissou) for the journey and film about the quest, while also interacting with a journalist (Cate Blanchett), a “bond company stooge” (Bud Cort), and a young man (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be his son.

But The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is more about character moments and visual inventiveness than plot; Anderson’s dollhouse-miniature aesthetic was achieved through the building of a set that was a full-scale boat. It also has blue and yellow as its primary colors, rather than the red of Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums

Noah Baumbach, in the middle of his long fallow period that ended with The Squid and the Whale, co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson, while Mark Mothersbaugh wrote the fantastic music; for some reason, the composer never worked with Anderson again afterward. 

Like most Anderson movies, The Life Aquatic has a first-rate soundtrack, which includes singer Seu Jorge singing several popular David Bowie songs in Portuguese, and a tune from the Icelandic group Sigur Rós, who were ubiquitous in the movies around that time period. 

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou upon release in 2014 was considered a flop; the reviews weren’t nearly as positive as they were for Anderson’s first three films. However, it’s since been seriously re-assessed, even as some critics have become fatigued by what they see as the repetitiveness of Anderson’s newer films. 

Even so, the climactic Tiger Shark confrontation is up there with the very best scenes Anderson has ever done: 

And the film’s final moments are the greatest-ever cinematic use of the music of David Bowie: 

Incidentally, a documentary called A Picture of His Life plays like a nonfiction version of The Life Aquatic, as rather than a shark, Israeli-American photographer Amos Nachoum is seeking to photograph a rare underwater polar bear in Antarctica. 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is part of the best stretch of Anderson’s career — and indeed, one of the best three-film stretches for any director — along with Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. No matter how you manage to catch this gem, your enjoyment of the film will rise by 20 percent each time you watch it, as it has for me over the years.

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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