Directed by Wes Anderson
Line that stays with me: “I still wish I could breathe underwater”
Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.
I’ve been trying to write this essay for almost two weeks now. The only explanation why I have taken this long to write what seems to be a simple film essay, is the fact that this film encompasses many aspects of my life. This film, when released, was my own personal Star Wars. I watched it five times at my local cinema and yes I paid each time. This film to me is a dream come true and a sad swan song of sorts, since it will be a while before anyone will get $65 million to make a film of its caliber.
“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” came out in the winter of 2004. It didn’t win any awards and it tanked at the box office. Wes Anderson took a huge risk bringing this film to the screen. This is the film he followed up after the success of “The Royal Tenebaums”. That film made over $50 million at the box office and got nominated for a few Academy Awards. So I’ve to come believe that after the success of “The Royal Tenebaums” Wes Anderson was offered the “Do whatever you want director deal” which many have squandered (The Postman, Heaven’s Gate, Matrix Reloaded just to name a few.)
All “wanna be” directors dream of that day; the day some company gives you a crazy amount of money to make whatever film you want. Seriously, how else could one explain how somebody got to make a film that takes place in water (budget no-no) shot in Fellini’s Cinecitta Studios and stars Bill Murray, who has not been box office gold in the last decade or so (The Man Who Knew Too Little, nuff said.) Wes Anderson took a risk. He could’ve played it safe but he chose not to and I believe he did it for us. That’s why I look at this film and many great films that require sacrifice as gifts.
The gift of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is that it offers us a chance to be children again. There’s a reason for the unique color scheme that makes it seems like you are watching a Nickelodeon cartoon. For God’s sake the film’s score composer long time Wes Anderson collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh use to score the Nickelodeon cartoon “Rugrats”. A mood, and feeling, of childhood are embedded in this film. Many of the creatures on the screen are animated and the soundtrack is always jubilant. One of the greatest moments in the film is watching Bill Murray feed a beautiful Killer Whale. Scenes like that or the one that takes place up on a hot air balloon, are pure child like moments. Later you realize that scene is really about a girl interviewing her childhood hero and what a beautiful way to interview someone you use to hold up so high.
You can look at the film as an adventure. The great adventure that very few of us our offered in life, which is freedom. Steve Zissou got to travel the world and be a celebrity. The very dreams that kids have today and I’m sure many of us had. On a boat in open sea with your best friends and that’s all you do for a living. It’s hard to even imagine a life like that. It reminded me of drawings I made as a kid of me and my friends living under the same roof. Our heroes get to live that life for us and create art. Another beauty of the film is basically embracing that lifestyle. A life spent creating entertainment for people. People that later look up to you.
The heroes we look up to. How many of you out there are afraid to meet your heroes? This film basically shows a boy and girl meeting their childhood hero. Which is such a great question for a film, to test, simply ask yourself, who was your hero when you were 5 years old. Now imagine dropping into that person’s life right now and finding out all the sad truths of their lives. Which I think would be the case if I walked into Jim Carrey’s life right now.
Most people in the entertainment industry don’t live a simple life. They have the power to get up and do things that we can only dream of. In most cases that power corrupts some of their ideals along the way. I’m not pleading a case for celebrities but we do have a unique relationship with our heroes since we are ones that gave them the “power”; this film tries to understand the effects of that relationship. All with the cheeriness and joy of a child to not make the film’s subject too dreary. That is such a rare and beautiful idea that it drives me mad. We adore them; they get fame and fortune but can never live the “normal” life of having a family and a home. Steve Zissou does not know the pleasure of reading a book to his unborn child, he lived like a rock star, even had an African Mistress thus he could never imagine being a father. That’s the life he’s afraid of and can not understand because he’s chosen to live, to be our hero, to be our rock star.
In the back of his mind, I’m sure Steve wonders what his life would have been like if he was part of his son’s life but he will never know because of the lifestyle he chose. A lifestyle that many of us want our heroes to live, subconsciously some of us consciously, we want them to be crazy for us. Any legendary artist has that to their credit. From Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson, our heroes have had their moment of pure wonderful madness. We wonder why they do these crazy things that are so damn interesting. I’ll end this review with 2 things that show Wes Anderson’s brilliance for empathy. In the last scene of the film you watch Steve Zissou pick up Klause’s nephew Werner and put him up on his shoulders. Maybe like he always wanted to and he finally got a perfect chance. The last thing is a verse from one of the songs in the film “30th Century Man” by Scott Walker. “See the dwarf and see the Giant, which one would you choose to be”.
ABOUT RCM: Rutz Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: David Lynch’s DuneTweet to @RealRutz