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Movie Review

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity

Reviewed by: Jonathan Rodriguez

Very Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Comedy, Adventure, Fantasy
1 hr. 58 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures
Copyright, Touchstone Pictures
Featuring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe
Director: Wes Anderson
Producer: Scott Rudin, Wes Anderson, Barry Mendel
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures

Here’s what the distributor says about their film: “Internationally famous oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew—Team Zissou—set sail on an expedition to hunt down the mysterious, elusive, possibly non-existant Jaguar Shark that killed Zissou’s partner during the documentary filming of their latest adventure. They are joined on their voyage by a young airline co-pilot who may or may not be Zissou’s son (Owen Wilson), a beautiful journalist (Cate Blanchett) assigned to write a profile of Zissou, and Zissou’s estranged wife and co-producer, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). They face overwhelming complications including pirates, kidnapping, and bankruptcy.”


Have you ever seen a painting, read a book, or heard a song, that to you just seemed utter garbage, but to the artsy critics of the world seemed pure gold? Now, I admit, I am a sucker for artsy movies, if they are entertaining to me in the slightest; it doesn’t have to make complete and total sense, as long as it keeps me happy and wraps up nicely. One film that did that for me was Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”; I knew it was somewhat pretentious, self-serving, but it was so confidently made and wonderfully acted that I couldn’t help but walking away loving it. The same cannot be said, however, for Anderson’s latest film “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” The film seems pieced together by an artist so smug in his previous successes that he feels anything he touches will turn up gold.

The film tells the story of oceanographer and documentary filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). It opens with Zissou showing his latest film, chronicling his latest undersea adventure, which this time ends in sadness. His longtime friend and oceanography partner, Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was killed during filming when a shark, which Zissou calls a “jaguar shark,” eats him during one of their dives. After showing the film, he fields questions from the audience, and is asked what the scientific purpose of killing the endangered shark would be. In one of them film’s few great lines, Zissou says with no real feeling whatsoever “Revenge.”

Copyright, Touchstone Pictures

Zissou puts together his usual ragtag team of filmmakers and scientists for the trip to sea. Along for the ride are the familiar faces of Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, and Willem Dafoe, among others. The crew must actually find the shark, which was tagged when it ate Esteban, but because the ship’s tracking device is no longer operational, they must steal a high-tech one from Zissou’s personal and professional rival, played by Jeff Goldblum. The crew encounter various obstacles on the way to finding the shark, including, of course, pirates.

The performances in the film are quite stale, considering the talent involved. Zissou may be a tired, beat up seaman, but Murray’s performance generates little sympathy; it is very monotone, which has worked for him before, but for some reason doesn’t quite fit here. Owen Wilson is decent in his role as Zissou’s possible son, but isn’t given any scenes of real meat, and he and Murray lack the chemistry I was expecting.

Anjelica Huston and Cate Blanchett are the only truly notable performances in the film. Huston wears the look of someone used to keeping all emotions on the inside, and in the film’s finally scenes, plays it beautifully. Blanchett is strong as the pregnant journalist on board writing a piece on Zissou. She is strong when she wants to be, when confronted by the men in her life, but fragile when alone, and Blanchett as always comes through in a film not worthy of her skills.

The film’s content is typical of Anderson’s previous work, with maybe a bit more violence. The profanity is needlessly strong, with many uses of the F and Gd-words. Nudity is also needlessly present, but fortunately brief. The crew’s script writer is seen, primarily for laughs (which don’t come), topless in all of her first four scenes of the film. The nudity, however, is mostly at a distance or obscured in some way, as if that matters. Violence is seen involving a shootout with pirates, and was at times a bit bloody, but nothing too offensive.

“The Life Aquatic” somehow feels arrogant right from the get go. While it worked with Anderson’s previous films, he doesn’t flesh out anything that would at least make us think it has earned the right to feel that way. The characters aren’t that interesting, the acting is stale, and the animation of the sea creatures is at times bizarre. With a wealth of great movies out in the theater right now, I felt cheated out of my time, which could have been better spent doing anything else. For the first time in my life, I considered walking out of a movie, not because I was offended, but because I simply wasn’t all that interested in how it was going to end. And, had I not been reviewing this film, I very well might have. Running 1 hour and 58 minutes and rated R for “language, some drug use, violence, and partial nudity,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” gets a D+.

Violence: Mild / Profanity: Extreme / Sex/Nudity: Moderate

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive—I liked the movie; didn’t love it. For fans of Anderson’s previous efforts it works, otherwise I think it would bore a lot of people. The reviewer asked “Have you ever seen a painting, read a book, or heard a song, that to you just seemed utter garbage, but to the artsy critics of the world seemed pure gold?” I see his point, but VERY few critics have called “The Life Aquatic” “pure gold.” Pretention and stale acting are trademarks of Wes Anderson’s humor. I respect the reviewers opinion that some stuff “just doesn’t work,” but I think for most fans of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Rushmore” and “Bottle Rocket” the film will entertain just fine.

Morally, the film is not considerably different from Anderson’s previous films. Unneccesary nudity is another (less respectable) trademark of Mr. Anderson. Lauguage is frequent. Violence is mostly in a joking and non-graphic nature except for when one of the pirates is killed.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive/3½]
—Josiah Hager, age 20
Neutral—That I can only bring myself to give “The Life Aquatic” a 3 rating overall breaks my heart. I guess that I fall somewhere in between both the reviewer of the film and Josiah. It is true that very few critics have called this movie “pure gold” and, actually, the majority have disliked it… however, I am a huge fan of Wes Anderson—“The Royal Tenenbaums” is one of my favorite films of all time—and even I don’t think the movie works much of the time.

To begin with, I am not a person who is totally against nudity in film, I believe it simply needs to be warranted and needed, and here it was not. It was neither purposed nor funny, it was just… nudity. As for the language, I read that there were 20 “F” words. Hmm… that seems high to me. I remember about half that. Anderson knows how to mask his profanity very well, so that it really does seem a part of the character. So, for me, the nudity was obvious, while the profanity wasn’t.

What sets “The Life Aquatic” apart is the lack of investment it inspires. Consider that while “Tenebaums” is just as much a comedy as this film (and “Tenenbaums” is loads funnier, as well), it made us care very quickly about each of its characters. That is what prevented the acting from being stale, the fact that we were so completely invested and interested in them. There were no simple characters. The Gwyneth Paltrow character had a quiet power, as if years of pain were just below the surface. And yet we laughed at her lines! Or compare the two Owen Wilson characters. The difference is that in “Life Aquatic” his character has a written history, in that we hear him talking about the past, but he doesn’t seem to show that very much; it only seems to affect him in the scenes when the script calls for it. Otherwise, he’s just there. The same can be said for many of the characters, including Willem Dafoe’s. I will say that Cate Blanchett’s character works in every scene. She is a great, great actress. And as for Bill Murray, he does a great job of being naturally understated about 90% of the time. He is an actor who carries so much depth just in his eyes, and he has a number of well-crafted moments, dramatic and comedic.

There seemed to be too much wasted time in the movie. Occasionally, little scenes would be thrown in which were completely irrelevant, trying to get a laugh, but instead served to impede on whatever momentum the film had garnered. During the first half, I kept thinking, okay, when is this really going to get it going? Then came the moment when pirates boarded the ship. Oh no. And there is a shootout. Now, I believe that Wes Anderson is a remarkable film-maker. He is one of my personal favorites. His writing is always sharp, his direction always interesting, his cinematography peculiar and brilliant. BUT. He seems to have lost his way a bit. For starters, he should have asked Scorsese or Tarantino for some notes on shooting an action sequence (comic or not), because the two shootouts are a mess.

As well, his writing here seems so preoccupied with nudging us every time it makes a joke, as if it is giving us his permission to laugh along with him, that it isn’t funny. It’s obvious and kind of pretentious. You know why Tarantino movies are so funny? Because the characters aren’t playing to the audience. If they make a joke, it is to the other characters, or it is because what is serious to them is funny to us (Anderson accomplished this wonderfully in “The Royal Tenenbaums” And for the record, you should see it if you haven’t. It’s great.)

And the interesting thing was that most of the audience I was with wasn’t laughing much. The times the jokes worked best (were in the scenes when Anderson let the characters do the work, which was about 40-50% of the film.

And yet, for all its faults, “The Life Aquatic” does have some genuine laughs. Some of the relationships are very interesting, even if not quite compelling enough, and the ending is extremely beautiful. It is quiet and touching, and it shows Anderson’s true brilliance as a film-maker. Watching it, I wished that he had utililized that strength, of blending comedy and poignancy, throughout the rest of the film. It is not enough for us to care about the characters only at the end.

Usually it is the Michael Bay movies that we say are too much style, not enough substance. And it hurts to have to put Wes Anderson’s film in that same category, because from everything I’ve read, he and the cast had a great time working on it, and I hope he makes many more films. I just hope that next time, he uses his gifts more effectively.
My Ratings: [Average/3]
—Jason Eaken, age 21
Positive—I thought it was interesting that Jason Eaken noted that “The times the jokes worked best (were in the scenes when Anderson let the characters do the work, which was about 40-50% of the film.” I recently read an interview with Wes Anderson. When asked if there was a lot of improvisation in the film, he said that he “didn’t give [the actors] the venue to do it.” Interesting.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive/3½]
—Josiah, age 20
Neutral—The objectionable content was the brief nudity, cussing, and some of the violence. That’s what I didn’t like about this movie. What I did like about it was the “artsy” part of it. It had that indie-film look to it and it was quite clever and funny in some parts. If it took out the cussing, partial nudity, and some of the violence, it would easily be a PG instead of an R. I advise fellow Christians to wait until it comes out on VHS/DVD to get it through an objectionable content filter.
My Ratings: [Average/4]
—Shannon H., age 23
Positive—This movie is pure gold. I am shocked that none of the other reviewers have noted Wes Anderson’s better grasp of cinematic technique. I am talking about things like the editing. I mean look at the jump cuts going on in the background of the pirate scene. Or the way he cuts to create an emotional state when the helicopter crashes. Plus, he just throws in so many cinema references that are cool. An example of this being the feet scene when Steve and Cate Blanchett’s character are on the balloon. This is pure 8 and a half.

I did not understand the reviewers who said that Anderson needed to take a lesson from Tarantino or whatnot. I think the point is that Wes Anderson is making fun of those John Wooesque action sequences. That scene looked as if it could have come from Hard Boiled.
In regards to the brief nudity, I do not see anything objectionable about it. It kind of sets the mood for the film. Women usually don’t do that, and you are entering a world in which things are not usual. …not a single person mentioned that cool tracking shot when Ned tells Steve that he might be his child. I mean the camera movement on that was just so awesome. Honestly I think this and Rushmore are by far Anderson’s two best works. Rushmore for its feel and pathos, and Life Aquatic for its command of film technique and pathos also.
My Ratings: [Good/5]
—Nick, age 23
Positive—Yes, there is some swearing, a topless woman and some silly, comical violence. That’s not what this movie is about. If you don’t know why this movie was made, then its not really fair calling Bill Murray “stale and monotonous.” We travelled on wet autumn night to see this movie, not sure what to expect. We were drawn by the cast and its unfavourable reviews… we loved it. I am not going to review the acting or the directing or its production value, since they are but a sideshow to the incredible way Wes Anderson has given us a truly respectful satire of the life of Jacques Cousteau.

To present a movie such as this, and call it another Bill Murray comedy is really an insult. From its Red Knitted Hats, to cheesy uniforms and retro, clunky old equipment, it shows the “behind-the-scenes” life of a famous naturalist from the golden era of armchair exploration. As was so typical of Cousteau, there was more drama behind the scenes than in his documentaries, which eventually took a backseat to his real life. Anderson shows this by mimicking Cousteaus production styles in the “docu-features” shown in the movie, which are bad on purpose, to the stop motion sea creatures which are all fantastic and completely unbelievable. But the drama onboard the Belafonte no doubt was pretty typical when compared to the Calypso, Cousteau’s real ship.

Zissou is completely dysfunctional, except for the support of his estranged wife and his band of sycophantical crew. What a terrific interpretation of the real Cousteau. A man with a dream to show us the oceans, a true eccentric, right down to the illegitimate son and the tragic loss of some of the crew. And while it certainly is satirical, Cousteau’s inability to be a loving father (yet having two complete families at the same time and one not knowing the other!!) is echoed when Bill Murray says to Owen Wilson “I don’t like fathers, so I never wanted to be one.”

An under-rated masterpiece of satire, that maintains the dignity of its subject. The most original and enjoyable movie I have seen in a long, long time.
My Ratings: [Excellent!/5]
—Lars, age 36
Positive—Steve Zissou is the father, his crew is his family. The defiant (perhaps bra-burning daughter starts a mutiny)… that’s hilarious! …“Royal Tenenbaums” is a mess, an experience I would equate to having tinsel sprayed up my nose. This film is much more coherant and enjoyable, much more like “Rushmore,” which is is his best film. The father appreciates beauty through the sea, this is why it’s so exagerated and rainbow colored. He longs for heaven, “I still wish I could breathe underwater.” The death of his son breaks his heart. he sees life as beautiful, he just wishes it didn’t have such big teeth.

Perhaps a younger generation will also appreciate the fact that this is much cooler! The where’s waldo turban, “This is ground control to major tom…” is sung as Ned is distracted from watch duty, I want a red cap and a speedo. This film I feel is a correction for Tenebaums which is precisely what this review thinks of Aquatic. In aquatic, it’s the end of a film presentaion, “I don’t think they got” the woman says. Later Bill Murray sits down and says “You think people say that stuff cause they’re jealous, it still hurts.” He finishes the movie with the same ending as Tenebaums. There is no doubt in my mind that this is meant to be a redemptive film.
My Ratings: [Average/5]
—Christopher Engle, age 21

Comments from young people
Positive—A very good film with great cinematography and acting; it’s only flaws are it’s a little confusing at times and is not for everybody but I still love it, but as for the content I should warn you that there are 4 instances of brief nudity, about 4 instances of violence and plenty of profanity. Overall, it is a great film, but should be watched with discretion.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive/4½]
—Jonathan, age 9
Movie Critics
…The script girl casually walks around topless in several scenes… Nearly 100 profanities, obscenities or crass slang… approximately 20 f-words…
—Bob Smithouser, Plugged In
…best compared to a lavishly illustrated, haphazardly plotted picture book—albeit one with frequent profanity and an occasional glimpse of a woman’s breasts—the kind dreamy children don’t so much read start to finish as browse and linger over, finding fuel for their own reveries…
—A.O. Scott, New York Times
…In this loopy, melancholy riff on ‘Moby-Dick,’ Wes Anderson has crafted his most thrillingly original, if not always emotionally convincing, film…
—Sheri Linden, The Hollywood Reporter
…so enamored with his break-all-the-rules style of filmmaking that he completely wastes the great talents of stars Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett
—E! Online
…a sluggish, lifeless, monumental disappointment—annoying, smirking and self-satisfied about its own cleverness and ironic detachment…
—Jim Lane, Sacramento News and Review
…a movie that’s quite often fun to watch but almost impossible to surrender to… the bulk of the material feels too familiar…
—Glenn Whipp, L.A. Daily News