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It's not Moby Dick! It's not Moby Dick!
by Asa Butcher
Issue 6
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Information
Film
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson
2004
“What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?” enquires a scientist about the mysterious Jaguar Shark that killed Zissou’s best friend during the making of their latest documentary. “Revenge,” states our antihero Steve Zissou.

Do not fear! The Jaguar Shark is no white whale and Bill Murray is not a one-legged Captain Ahab, plus he is not monomaniacal in his focus. He has to deal with his possible son, failing marriage, arrogant nemesis and a failing career as an oceanographer, whose life closely resembles that of the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau, including a red woollen cap that strangely suits Murray.

Bill Murray is this movie. His straight-faced humour makes every scene strangely believable in this world of CGI aquatic life, pirates, a mutiny and a bond company stooge with a heart. Murray’s interaction with the excellent cast is faultless; in fact, at times you could believe that this was a painful documentary in the making. We follow the anguish he is suffering and inflicting, which is why I called him an ‘antihero’, especially to the interns from the University of Alaska earning extra credit: “Hey intern, get me a Campari.”

This is only Wes Anderson’s fifth major film, and Bill Murray has starred in three of those and Anjelica Huston in two. The director has also shared his career with Owen Wilson, who received his acting break in Anderson’s first major film – Wilson has worked with him on each project ever since.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou - don’t let the title put you off - uses some great camera tricks and the script, partly penned by Anderson, contains some hilarious dialogue: “Supposedly Cousteau and his cronies invented the idea of putting walkie-talkies into the helmet. But we made ours with a special rabbit ear on the top so we could pipe in some music.”

The movie has plenty of references to Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the famed underwater filmmaker and co-inventor of the modern aqualung, but since his famous series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" was a few years before my time, I’ll have to hold my hands up that many of the subtle references may have gone over my head.

The rest of the cast were equal to the talent of Bill Murray, especially Owen Wilson as Ned Plimpton, Zissou’s ‘probable’ son, and Cate Blanchett as Jane Winslett-Richardson, a pregnant journalist assigned to write a profile of Zissou. The three of them appear in the majority of the movie and the audience are treated to all-round great performances, although I kept seeing Cate Blanchett as Emma Thompson.

Honourable mentions should also go to Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Seu Jorge, who plays David Bowie songs in Portuguese throughout the movie , even when he is supposed to be keeping watch for pirates. The music throughout The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is either Seu’s guitar or cheesy ‘70’s keyboard music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh that perfectly matches the conflict between Zissou’s glory days and his refusal to acknowledge that his time has past.

The cutaway set of Zissou’s ship Belafonte is excellent, especially during the tour scene that travels around the boat, and the editing by David Moritz made me laugh a few times, such as when Team Zissou are approaching a ship on board a speedboat and suddenly they are in the air on a helicopter – it worked beautifully.

Watch this film just once because, even though I loved it, I was left with the impression a repeated viewing would be disappointing. Anyway, you need to see Bill Murray’s brilliance in the opening scene when he is reeling from the death of his best friend and he has just met an Air Kentucky pilot claiming to be his son. He excuses himself, David Bowie’s Life on Mars explodes, then he walks to the bow of his boat and lights a cigarette attempting to comprehend it all – Murray’s deadpan expression, the tracking camera shot and the loud music made the whole scene amazing.

P.S. Remind me to send him a red cap and a Speedo.

   
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