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Wes Anderson is a director whose individual style and approach is probably more likely to go down in history than the actual content of his work. This is a shame considering the sheer insight and nuance of his output, and that’s at its most true when looking at his underrated film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Sure, it has its cult following but it’s always been pushed close to the back of the Anderson queue, along with the likes of genuinely sub-par material like The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom. I do, however, think that there’s a faithful group of those who consider the Belafonte and its crew the shining achievement of Anderson and his tight-knit team of collaborators. I am a proud member of that group.
The Life Aquatic is a deliberately childlike work, peppered with wonderful dialogue, performances that truly understand the themes at hand, meticulous set design, perfectly off-beat music and enchanting cinematography. Unfortunately, however, if you don’t understand that this is a film about age, growth and experience then you’re going to have a tough time getting past the word “childlike”. The music often evokes simple, yet playful, music-box melodies or even lullabies. Other times they take on shades of what Steve Zissou himself would probably think is appropriate. This comes down to the title character being obsessed with infantile images of fame and influence, all of which crumble when confronted with the potential of Ned Plimpton (one of Owen Wilson’s finest performances) being his very real son and spawn. An oceanographer and documentary filmmaker, based in part on Jacques Cousteau, Zissou is utterly at home imparting wisdom to a faceless audience – wisdom shown several times as being dubious and reliant on his own parental figures. Not so when faced with the naive, equally developmentally arrested, Ned; sure that Zissou is his father from previous illegitimacy.
The film quickly becomes less about whether Ned is right in his assumptions or not and instead leaps straight into an exploration of what makes us the way we are, and how much that comes from ourselves as opposed to our influences. Indeed, when faced with the cocksure and fully realised Captain Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum) is it not made all the more clear to what extent Zissou is merely “playing” at being oceanographer? In the end it muses that we’re all playing our own games to some level, and the success that follows therein can only be quantified by the quality of the company you keep – and its meaning to you. Constantly funny and backed up by a career-defining performance by the enigmatic Bill Murray, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou isn’t saying a lot as much as it’s showing a lot. As with the rest of the best of Anderson’s catalogue, the gaps are yours to fill with your own perspective. You could concentrate on the look at maturation it offers, or instead focus on the Jaguar Shark that Zissou hunts and consider it a symbol for a myriad of potential meanings. What has to be remembered with the work of Anderson, and perhaps is forgotten by the less faithful, is that meaning is always and abundantly there. If you take nothing from his films, I would suggest you have nothing in your heart.