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Film / The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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Festival Director: That's an endangered species at most. What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?
Steve Zissou: Revenge.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a 2004 adventure comedy-drama film directed by Wes Anderson, written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe. It is a Spiritual Sequel to Anderson's previous film The Royal Tenenbaums.

Steve Zissou (Murray) is a world-renowned oceanographer and documentarian, and things are not going well for him. His documentaries have been getting less acclaim. His wife (Huston) — who was once married to his archrival Alistair Hennessey (Goldblum) — refuses to join him on his expeditions anymore. And worst of all, during the filming of his last documentary, his best friend Esteban was eaten by what Zissou describes as a "Jaguar shark", a creature that — given the fact that the only one who has seen it was an apparently momentarily deranged Zissou — few believe exists.

Zissou announces that his next documentary will detail his search for the jaguar shark in order to kill it. When he (predictably) can't get funding through the traditional channels, he receives the unexpected help of Ned Plimpton (Wilson), a Kentucky airline pilot who believes Zissou to be his long-lost father. Zissou sets out on the search for the Jaguar shark. His eclectic crew includes Ned; Bill (Bud Cort), a "bond company stooge" sent by Zissou's producer to keep an eye on him; pregnant reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Blanchett), who ends up coming between Ned and Zissou; Klaus (Dafoe), a devoted German sailor with severe emotional issues; Pelé (Seu Jorge), a safety expert with a penchant for singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese; and a bunch of unpaid college interns.

Zissou is both a parody of and homage to French diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau, to whom the film is dedicated. Besides the jaguar shark, the film contains other fictional sea lifeforms (such as the rhinestone bluefin, crayon ponyfish, wild snow-mongoose, electric jellyfish, and sugar crabs) depicted via stop-motion animation by Henry Selick.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou provides examples of:

  • Amicable Exes: Eleanor seems to have a better relationship with her ex-husband Hennessey than she does with her current husband Steve.
  • Anyone Can Die: Ned dies very suddenly near the climax of the film, as a result of an accident born from Steve's negligence.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Steve's the only halfway decent actor among his crew.
  • Bang, Bang, BANG: Averted. Despite one of the film's themes being how the unrealistic style of Steve's films comes from his surrealist reality, the guns do sound like they would in real life (as in, high-pitched pops rather than low thooms).
  • Book Ends: In the beginning and in the end, Zissou shows one of his documentary films at a festival, where he meets Werner, the young nephew of Klaus.
  • Broken Pedestal: All of Steve's associates have this towards him to some extent, but it's why Jane's writing a hatchet piece on him as she circuitously blames Zissou for her boss getting her pregnant.
  • Cock Fight: Played for Laughs in a scene between Steve and Ned when they're fighting over Jane.
    Ned: I'm gonna fight you, Steve.
    [Steve punches Ned in the face]
    Steve: You never say, "I'm gonna fight you, Steve." You just smile and act natural, and then you sucker-punch him.
    Ned: You fight your way, and I'll fight mine.
    Steve: Oh, listen, Ned. Don't you try to...
    [Ned punches Steve in the face]
    Steve: ... I think your Team Zissou ring might've caught me on the lip.
  • Compensating for Something: Zissou's strained machismo, promiscuity, and recurring homophobia are heavily implied to be the means with which he hopes to make up for his sterility.
  • Cover Drop: The exact scene depicted on the poster above is in the film (minus Ned, who is put where Pelé was in the actual scene).
  • Death by Irony: The helicopter that Steve poorly maintains winds up crashing while he and Ned are riding in it.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Steve implies as much when Hennessey brings up a rationale for his failings as a husband.
    Hennessey: We've never made great husbands, have we? Of course, I have a good excuse. I'm part-gay.
    Zissou: Supposedly, everyone is.
  • Expy Coexistence: Steve is a blatant Mock Cousteau, but a comment from Steve establishes that Cousteau does exist in the universe of the film, as a rival to Steve.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: Seu Jorge's character being named Pelé dos Santos sounds like a big joke to any Brazilian, being a reference to the world's greatest soccer player.
  • Fictional Pinball Game: There's a "Zissou" pinball machine on the boat.
  • Five-Token Band: Team Zissou, as listed in the beginning of the film:
    • Esteban du Plantier
    • Klaus Daimler: "Calm, collected, German."
    • Vikram Ray: "Born on the Ganges."
    • Bobby Ogata
    • Renzo Pietro
    • Vladimir Wolodarsky
    • Anne-Marie Sakowitz
    • Pelé dos Santos
    • Eleanor Zissou
    • Seven marine science students from the University of North Alaska (one of whom is later identified as Nico).
  • Fanservice Extra: Anne-Marie, the script-writer who is frequently seen topless and who makes little contribution to the plot.
  • Fix It in Post: Steve's reaction to some of his more blatant gaffes. Eventually, after falling down a flight of stairs, he announces that he wants to leave it in and "give 'em the reality".
  • Gene Hunting: Ned Plimpton believes that Steve is his father. It is later revealed that Steve is sterile, but in the meantime, both have become as close as father and son.
  • Gentleman Adventurer: The image Alistair and Steve try to foster through their films. Although Alistair's not much of an adventurer and Steve's hardly a gentleman.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: The Belafonte is taken over by pirates because Ned wasn't doing his job (due to having been put on the roster as "Kingsley Zissou"). Pelé is playing his guitar on deck when they get boarded... and doesn't notice until the ladder hits the hull.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Steve and Esteban before the latter's death.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Most members of Team Zissou.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: Steve's primary reason for letting Ned join his crew is that his supposed son genuinely (and naively) admires him.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Having been raised by one who he very much loved, Ned compliments Jane that she would be a very good single mother, not understanding that she didn't want to raise her child alone.
  • The Intern: The crew includes a bunch of unpaid college interns, whom the entire crew treats like crap and are forced to do menial jobs and loot one of Hennessey's research stations. They finally have enough and quit after the pirate attack, which Steve responds to by giving them all "Incomplete" in their evaluation (seeing as he doesn't want to pass them but doesn't want them to fail, either). The lone holdout eventually becomes a full crew member and gets his name mentioned on film.
    Steve: Anne-Marie, do the interns get Glocks?
    Anne-Marie: No, they all share one.
  • Jerkass with a Heart of Gold: Steve, definitely.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All:
    • Steve is occasionally implied to be this.
      Steve: Oh shit, she's right. I guess we'll have to loop that line.
    • Steve at one point reveals that no-one on his crew had any previous background in oceanography before joining, so he may not have had it as well.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: During a scene when Zissou insists that his films are documentaries and thus inherently truthful, the camera zooms out enough to show that the ship they're standing in is a constructed set.
  • Medium Blending: Cartoonish stop-motion animation is used to depict many underwater scenes and most of the sea life that appears in the film.
  • Metafictional Title: In-Universe, The Life Aquatic is the title of the documentary film by Zissou that is showed at a festival in the beginning.
  • Mock Cousteau: The titular main character.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Anne-Marie spends half of her scenes topless. Depending on your interpretation, Zissou may have left this in his films for that purpose, so this could be stealthily lampshading the concept of fanservice.
  • National Stereotypes: Klaus's nephew Werner wears stereotypical German lederhosen in all his scenes.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Subverted with Bill the Bond Company Stooge. Steve expects him to follow them around on the expedition interfering and telling him what he can and can't do, but nothing of the sort happens other than briefly complaining when they raid Alistair's laboratory for equipment. He is seen doing his accounting work in one shot.
  • The Oner: The film likes to follow the characters over the multi-stage set figuring the ship as they walk out from one room to the other, all in a single shot.
  • One-Steve Limit: Quite literally. Esteban is the Spanish form of Stephen, meaning the two friends had the same name.
  • Percussive Maintenance: On the last instance of the lights going off, Steve hits a wall and they come back on.
  • Posthumous Character: Esteban was eaten by the "jaguar shark" before the start of the film. His character only appears in the documentary film showed by Zissou at the festival.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: "I said... get your ass THE HELL OFF OF MY BOAT!"
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • This scene between Steve and Jane:
      Jane: I'm going to have to start locking my effing door.
      Steve: It was locked, I kicked it in. Why don't you just curse like other people?
      Jane: Because I'm trying to get out of the habit before I have my fucking baby!
    • Also:
      Alistair: Is this my espresso machine? Wh-what is-h-how did you get my espresso machine?
      Bill: Well... uh... we fuckin' stole it, man.
  • Running Gag: The ship's electricity shutting down without warning, showing that it is overall in a poor shape.
  • Ruthless Modern Pirates: The pirates Ned refers to as hijackers until Steve corrects him (and reminds him that he was supposed to be on watch).
  • Sapient Cetaceans:
    • The concept of hyper-intelligent dolphins is averted.
      Zissou: Son of a bitch, I'm sick of these dolphins.
    • As the dolphins watch Ned get it on with Jane and turn to face each other and "laugh" when Steve walks by the monitors to check again, it's entirely possible they're just screwing with him. They later prove this by leading Eleanor to the rescue mission boat.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: After unsuccessfully trying to dissuade Steve from going on his hunt for the Jaguar Shark (which she believes, rightfully, will go wrong), Eleanor opts to leave the crew rather than be a part of the disaster that will ensue.
  • Short Cuts Make Long Delays: "You wanna pay for the extra gas?" Considering that the ship's fuel was set ablaze after it was boarded by pirates...
  • Sitcom Archnemesis: Early on, Steve refers to Hennessey as his "nemesis", most likely out of jealousy that the latter is richer, more handsome and more successful.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Near the end, the team runs through a pond, and only Steve gets covered in leeches. The exact opposite of what happens in Ghostbusters, with everyone but Venkman covered in marshmallow.
    • The closing credits are a shout-out to the closing credit sequence of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, which co-starred Jeff Goldblum. (Pointed up by the fact that Alistair is the last character to join the march.)

"This is an adventure."


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Alternative Title(s): The Life Aquatic


Every Wes Anderson Film

This Honest Trailer points out the structural similarities of Wes Anderson's films.

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