Judge Erich Asperschlager is sick of being on the "B" Squad.
"This is an adventure."
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou makes it the last available Anderson film to get a hi-def upgrade—lapped by two films that hit theaters after its original DVD incarnation. Some will shrug off the movie, glad that Criterion focused on "better" Wes Anderson films first. Some may even wonder why they bothered bringing this clunker to Blu-ray at all. I am neither of those people.
Life Aquatic occupies an odd place in Anderson's catalog, between breakthrough hits Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and his recent popular films Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel. Life Aquatic was the first film the director wrote with Noah Baumbach instead of longtime pal Owen Wilson. Its style was both "more of the same" and something new. It is ambitious, layered, and highly stylized. I understand why viewers who were looking for more quirky fun were put off by the prickly title character and bursts of dark violence. There are certainly problems with the film. It jumps around in plot and tone. It has unlikable characters. It works better in moments than as a whole. But those moments are so great they pull Life Aquatic together into something special—a film deserving of a Criterion Blu-ray upgrade and a critical re-evaulation.
Facts of the Case
Famed explorer and documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, Lost in Translation) is at a low point in his career. His films aren't popular, investor money is going over to his rival (Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park), and his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel, Rushmore) was killed by a shark during his last expedition. At the premiere of his latest documentary he meets a Kentucky Airlines pilot named Ned (Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris), who claims to be his long lost son. Over the objections of his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Houston, The Addams Family) he sets off to find and kill the shark, with his loyal crew and a pregnant journalist named Jane (Cate Blanchett, The Monuments Men) in tow.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou might be Wes Anderson's most Wes Anderson-y film. It has everything the director is famous for: meticulous set and costume design, bold colors, symmetrical composition, quirky characters, and snappy dialogue. Like almost all his films, it's about distant fathers and dysfunctional families. It stars many of his favorite actors and has a classic rock soundtrack. Bottle Rocket and Rushmore were Anderson finding his voice. The Royal Tenenbaums was the director expanding his scope. The Life Aquatic is the culmination of the craft Anderson honed on his first three films, pushing his style to the limit.
For his fourth film, Wes Anderson turned to a new country, Italy, and a new collaborator. As former co-writer Owen Wilson's career took off, Anderson began working with writer/director Noah Baumbach. While the film in line with the director's earlier films, their script is more biting and less accessible. The dark elements in Life Aquatic are no darker than the attempted suicide and dog murder of Royal Tenenbaums, but there is less explicit humor to lighten the mood.
Rushmore and Tenenbaums feature playwright characters. Life Aquatic translates that interest in stagecraft to the filmmaking process. It is a movie about movie-making, drawing inspiration from European cinema and nature documentaries to create something that feels real and unreal. Anderson mixes location shooting with fantastic underwater sets and a massive cutaway fake ship they built in-studio. The staged elements aren't just indie quirk. They reflect the title character's complicated relationship with cameras and the truth.
Steve Zissou is a film star first and explorer second. His ship, the Belafonte, is more mobile studio than science vessel. His crew is more adept at hoisting a boom mic and cutting footage than zoology. Everything he does is to make himself look good in front of the camera, to the detriment of his personal relationships. We meet Zissou well past his prime, about to set off on his latest—possibly last—adventure, to find and kill the jaguar shark that ate his former partner.
The difference is that this time he's not in complete control of his crew. On the eve of his expedition, Zissou meets pilot named Ned who might be his son. Eager for the chance to be someone's hero again—and to build a compelling subplot for his film—Steve asks Ned to join his crew. He also welcomes aboard a pregnant journalist named Jane he assumes is there to write a puff piece. She's not. Life Aquatic chronicles Zissou's fall from a very low point, a journey marred by financial woes, mutiny, and pirate attack.
Life Aquatic can be a downer, but I don't see how anyone can hate a movie with this much Bill Murray. The legendary comedian first worked with Anderson in Rushmore, as sad-sack business tycoon Herman Blume. He had a small role in Royal Tenenbaums, but Life Aquatic is Murray in full career-revival glory. It's a brave, unsympathetic performance. His Zissou is Ahab by way of Jacques Cousteau. The only thing he cares about more than avenging his best friend is looking good on camera.
Murray's slick cynicism is contrasted by Owen Wilson's uber-sincere Ned. His performance is off-putting in a different way. At a time when Wilson was getting famous for playing charming jerks, his Ned is the caricature of a proper Southern gentleman. His stiff line delivery is highly stylized, and he's not alone. Cate Blanchett's Jane is a caricature herself, with a British accent that sounds like the Queen on helium. Steve Zissou is a director on the set of his own life. Ned and Jane are actors he didn't hire and can't control. Unlike his most loyal troupe member, Klaus—played by Willem Dafoe—easily the funniest character in the film not only for his German accent but his aggressive jealousy of Ned.
The characters border on caricature, but they still feel real. Where big studio blockbusters are packed with underwritten stereotypes, Wes Anderson is entirely devoted to his characters. Steve, Ned, and Jane work in the director's unique universe. There's nothing that says emotional resonance in movies is dependent on realism. Even if The Life Aquatic doesn't take its characters on the most satisfying journey, the attention to detail means there's plenty of depth for intrepid explorers.
As with all Wes Anderson films, that attention to detail is most obvious in the design and cinematography. Every aspect has been carefully considered—from Team Zissou's matching red caps and speedos to the brand of equipment on board the ship. The world of Life Aquatic is rendered in stunning detail in this 2.35:1 1080p transfer, made from a new 4K scan under the director's supervision. The original Criterion DVD looked great. This looks way better. Like Rushmore's upgrade, the difference from Criterion DVD to Blu-ray is night and day. Colors pop like never before, pulling deep reds and brilliant blues out of the overall warm timing, while the increased resolution shows off background details that were impossible to see before. The boosted color and sharpness allow for new appreciation of the film's stop-motion sea creatures, built by Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. Anderson and Baumbach approached Selick for their adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, then realized he'd be perfect to bring Life Aquatic's fantastical fauna to life.
The Blu-ray upgrade is just as noticeable in the soundtrack, presented here as a 24-bit 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The sound design of the film is impressive, but the audio star is the music—a mix of Anderson-selected classic rock tunes, David Bowie covers, and Mark Mothersbaugh electronic score. Longtime Anderson collaborator Mothersbaugh is in his element here, drawing from his Devo days to create something retro and new. Brazilian superstar Seu Jorge does double duty as Belafonte crewmember and Zissou house band, playing acoustic cover versions of David Bowie songs, sung in Portuguese. What do Portuguese Bowie covers have to do with undersea exploration? No idea, but they add one more wonderful texture to Life Aquatic's film collage.
All of the bonus features from The Life Aquatic's two-disc Criterion DVD set have been ported over, with no additional material. The original Blu-ray announcement mentioned new cast interviews, which appear to have been lost along the way. On one hand, it's a shame there's nothing new. On the other hand, it's hard to improve on the original batch of bonus features:
• Audio commentary with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. The pair recorded this in 2005 in the cafe where they wrote the film, as you can tell from the constant background chatter and clinking glasses. Anderson and Baumbach pepper the film with production tidbits, anecdotes, and insights.
• "This is an Adventure" (51:23): Made by Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera, and Matthew Prinzing in Italy 2003, this anti-EPK doesn't have talking head interviews or narration that ties things together. Instead, we get an hour of candid footage that reveals more about the filmmaking process than any slick featurette. It's raw, fascinating, and funny.
• "Mondo Monda" (16:25): Anderson and Baumbach appear in this spoof of Italian talk shows with host Antonio Monda (in reality a NYU professor and friend of the pair).
• Deleted Scenes: "Eleanor's Writing Shed" (0:58); "Albino Dolphin Cost Breakdown" (0:23); "Additional Mutiny Scene" (0:19); "Hydronicus Inverticus (Rat-Tail Envelope Fish)" (0:21); "Let's Just Keep it in the Moment" (0:33); "Swamp Leeches" (0:21); "You Lose Track of Time" (0:24); "Klaus on Fire" (0:15); "Mai Tais/Blue Hawaiians" (0:59).
• Cast and Crew Interviews (36:23): A collection of profiles for "Jane"; "Ned"; "Costumes"; "Aquatic Life"; "The Look Aquatic"; "Creating a Scene"; and "Esteban."
• Mark Mothersbaugh Interview (19:05): An interview with the composer and former Devo frontman. He talks about the "frozen in time" feeling Anderson wanted for Team Zissou, how working with Anderson is like his early Devo days, and the differences between his Wes Anderson film scores.
• "Seu Jorge Performs David Bowie": Uncut performances of the Brazilian musician singing ten Bowie tunes, many of which don't appear in the film—"Starman"; "Oh! You Pretty Things"; "Changes"; "Rebel Rebel"; "Lady Stardust"; "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide"; "Five Years"; "Life on Mars?"; "Suffragette City"; and "Quicksand."
• "Intern Video Journal" (15:22): More behind-the-scenes footage, shot by "Intern #1" Matthew Gray Gubler.
• Photos: 49 photos taken during the making of the film
• Designs: 15 paintings, illustrations, logos, drawings, and creature designs.
• Making-of Featurette (14:33): This "Starz On the Set" making-of isn't as in the same spirit as "This is an Adventure" but it covers the basics well.
• Theatrical Trailer (2:28): the film trailer, sadly not in hi-def.
• Insert fold-out booklet with "A Conversation" between Wes and Eric Chase Anderson and Criterion, about the brothers' drawings and visual style.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou isn't Wes Anderson's most cohesive film. It's not his best film. But it might be his most interesting. The plot is meandering, the characters act in unsympathetic ways, and the stylized approach puts a wall between the film and its audience. But it is full of so many wonderful, funny, and memorable moments that it succeeds on the strength of its parts, whatever they add up to. It also boasts a lead performance by the great Bill Murray. He is given a difficult part out of his smarmy charming comfort zone, and he rises to the challenge with acid humor and pathos. When the film came out in 2004, audiences rejected it as a step too far into Anderson's quirky world. Time and distance has given Life Aquatic room to be its own thing. Although it shares elements and ideas with other Anderson films, it is unlike anything else. The more I watch movies, the more important that is to me.
We remember you, Stevesy. Not Guilty!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2014 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.