Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: The Criterion Collection Set
Sound: B+†††† Extras: A†††† Film: A
There are precious few directors today who, upon utterance
of their name, have a style and look intrinsically associated with them.† Quentin Tarantino is one, David Fincher is
another.† And though Wes Anderson is
also a part of the modern class of auteurs, his work is something entirely
Like Jean-Luc Goddard, Stanley Kubrick, and Federico
Fellini before him, Andersonís films are visually individual.† His characters populate a fully realized
alternate reality, complete with the problems and distractions of ďrealĒ life
but filtered through the prism of the cinema.
In a film like The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters
we meet are wholly believable despite their seemingly fantastic idiosyncrasies
and neuroses, a testament to not only the acting of Gene Hackman, Danny Glover,
Anjelica Huston, and the rest of the cast, but also to Andersonís ó and,
indeed, co-writer Owen Wilsonís ó ability to make these characters resemble as
closely as possible those eccentric millionaires that pop up in our lives from
time to time.
Similarly, in Rushmore, arguably Andersonís best
and most complete work, overachieving Max Fischer and depressed Herman Blume
are simultaneously abhorrent and sympatheticóor, in other words, humanóbecause
both Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray bring the requisite gravitas to their
roles.† But more importantly, Anderson
and Wilson craft characters that are two halves of the same whole. Max is a
younger Herman, and Herman sees in Max the wide-eyed idealism that once filled
With both filmsóas well as the underrated Bottle RocketóAnderson
creates worlds and people that are familiar, but, like with the great auteurs
of the past, adds strokes of whimsy and otherworldly-ness to make these films
literally his own, with every frame stamped with his signature.
Andersonís latest work, The Life Aquatic with Steve
Zissou, comes on the heels of his widely-regarded Tenenbaums.† And while there was some criticism of The
Life Aquatic because, as many people have noted, ďit isnít ĎThe Royal
Tenenbaums,íĒ such thinking misses the point.
Rushmore isnít Bottle Rocket.† Tenenbaums isnít Rushmore.† And The Life Aquatic isnít Tenenbaums.† Andersonís films are always an exploration
into the new, which, regardless of the results, is something Hollywood could
certainly use more of.
And this new film is quite literally explorative,
centering on the erstwhile Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew (Willem
Dafoe, Seu Jorge, Noah Taylor, and Anjelica Huston, among others) as they hit
the seas to film documentaries and explore the oceanic depths.† On his latest adventure, Zissou sets out to
track and kill the jaguar shark that ate his friend and first mate Esteban
(Seymour Cassel).† Problem is, Zissou is
flat broke and canít find anyone to bankroll his documentary, which heíll film
as a pretext for revenge.
Enter Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Southern gentleman who
claims to be Zissouís son.† Thereís no
proof that he is, other than the truth that Nedís mother is someone Zissou had
bedded in the past.† But Zissou chooses
to believe Ned is his long-lost son, more because he longs for the
companionship of a best friendówhich was lost when Esteban was eatenóand
inducts Ned into the crew of his ship, the Bellafonte.
Luckily for Zissou, Ned has some inheritance money that he
wants to use to help his new father fund his documentary.† But taking it comes with some previsions:
the film canít go over budget, Zissou canít kill the shark, and he must take a
bank employee (Bud Cort) on his voyage to ensure the other conditions are met.
After, again, slight hesitation, Zissou and crew set off
to track the jaguar shark.† Along for
the ride is Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a reporter wishing to
profile Zissou for a ďNational GeographicĒ-style publication.† And she gets more than she bargains for on
the voyage after she discovers that the Zissou she idolized has been replaced
with a bitter, angry, depressed man who is hell-bent on revenge; the Bellafonte
is attacked and ransacked by pirates; Zissou locks horns with his nemesis,
Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum); and the Bellafonte crew stages a crazy
search-and-rescue operation to recover the bank officer, taken hostage by the
pirates who attacked them.
While all of that sets up Andersonís best film since
Rushmore, it canít top the performance Bill Murray gives, who delivers some of
his best work this side of Lost in Translation.† Murray plays Zissou as an extroverted
introvert.† His Zissou is a bastard,
crass and cruel normally, but also someone who has a great deal of hurt and
sadness bubbling just below the surface.†
The moment that he and the crew of the Bellafonte encounter the jaguar
shark is one of such emotional resonance that that alone should have secured
Murray an Academy Award.
Similarly, the rest of the cast is pitch perfect.† Everyone on the Bellafonte takes a backseat
to Murray, with the exception of Wilson, who turns in one of his finest
performances, Blanchett, whose work here was overshadowed by her amazing turn
as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, and Willem Dafoe who, as Klaus, the loyal
German who wants to be Zissouís second in command, nearly steals the show.
On the visual end, Andersonís direction of what could be
considered at times his first action film is flawless.† The intimate moments are as magnificent as
sweeping ocean panoramas, and his handling of the larger action set-pieces ó
the pirate invasion, the Ping Island rescue ó are cleverly done, true to the
spirit of the action but done with a mischievous wink to the audience that this
isnít their typical boom-boom action scene.
Naturally, this isnít whatís most important to the look of
the film.† Itís the reality of it all;
the believability.† The Bellafonte is an
actual ship on an actual body of water; the crazy animal wildlife, while not
real, was created through stop-motion animation rather than computers; and the
sets were all hand-made and to scaleóthe interiors of the Bellafonte were
constructed on soundstages and the green screen work is minimal.
All of that creates a throwback feel to the film.† It looks like something that could have been
shot in the Ď60s or Ď70s, but all of Andersonís films feel that way.† This film is different.† The Life Aquatic has the energy of a
French New Wave film and the sensibility of a Fellini work.
But there is truly nothing like The Life Aquatic.† Itís Andersonís most accomplished film, and
the one that firmly establishes him as todayís cinemaís auteur.† His best film remains Rushmore,
purely for the intimacy of the story and the filmmaking.† With Aquatic, though, Anderson
demonstrates that he can direct large pictures and still keep his distinctive
Is this The Royal Tenenbaums? No. Itís better, and
hopefully a sign of bigger things to come from one of cinemaís most exciting,
interesting, and eccentric auteurs.
As with Andersonís previous two films, The Life Aquatic
comes to DVD in a dazzling two-disc set from the Criterion Collection (spine
number 300).† And like his previous
films, the quality of the presentation and the extras afforded the film are
On disc one, the film is presented in a new,
high-definition 2.35 X 1 anamorphic widescreen that brings out the beauty of
the filmís cinematography.† Watching the
film, itís as if youíre on the Bellafonte with Zissou and crew.† The sky blues and yellows that dominate the
film are brought brilliantly to life, and the wild colors of the underwater
life are bright and vibrant.† One of the
strengths of the film is that cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman used real
anamorphic Panavision instead of inferior Super 35 for the film, and that
brings the film up to a visual level worthy of the documentary films they are
subtly sending up.† It is an argument on
why more films should be shot on film, and real scope films with richer scope
Aurally, The Life Aquatic isnít a ďloudĒ film, so
as such the quality of the sound of the DVD is as good as it needs to be.† Dialogue is understandable and the ambient
noises of the ocean and boat life are subtle and textured.† When there is a large set piece, like the
explosion that punctuates the Ping Island rescue, itís loud and booming,
utilizing the entirety of the surround sound set-up.† The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is good; especially the way Criterion
has done the transfer.
Also on disc one is a commentary from Anderson and
co-writer Noah Baumbach thatís as informative as past Anderson commentaries,
but is interesting in that it was recorded where the duo did the bulk of their
writingóa restaurant in New York.† This
is a neat change of pace, and itís good to hear a commentary taken out of the
Completing the extras on disc one is the filmís original
theatrical trailer which is, truth be told, slightly underwhelming as far as
trailers go; ten deleted scenes which are, more or less, little extensions to
scenes in the film but are all interesting; and a ďStarz on the SetĒ
behind-the-scenes featurette that is pretty redundant once you get through
extensive extras on disc two.
The marquee bonus on disc two is the ďThis is an
AdventureĒ documentary shot by Antonio Ferrera, Albert Maysles, and Matthew
Prinzing following the production of The Life Aquatic.† Murray and Anderson are at the center of the
documentary, which runs upwards of an hour, and itís great to see two masters
of their crafts at work.† There isnít a
hint of that promo nonsense in the documentary that usually marks making-ofs;
rather, itís a fairly even look at the trials and tribulations of shooting such
a complex and interesting film.
Another extra on disc two worth noting is the video
interview with Mark Mothersbaugh concerning not only scoring this film but his
working relationship with Anderson.†
There is more substance in this featurette than in any of the others,
primarily because Mothersbaugh is the focus and we never stray far from
that.† And he talks about more than just
The Life Aquatic.† Mothersbaugh
discusses how he works with Anderson at the beginning of the production rather
than the end, how both their musical tastes have influenced the otherís, and
even how his work with DEVO and why that band formed has made Mothersbaugh such
a successful film scorer.† Itís one of the
most-fascinating looks at composing for the movies you can find, and, if
nothing else, makes this set worth picking up.
Also included on disc two are fairly mundane
character/actor featurettes focusing on many of the actors in the film and
their characters.† The most interesting
of these behind-the-scenes looks is the one centered on Cassel.† Heís one of the coolest cats of modern
cinema, and he shows why here.† The
others pale in comparison, especially because thereís so much glad-handing
involved with them about how great so-and-so is.† Not with Cassel.† He talks
about acting, working with John Cassavetes, cigars, and the film at hand but
never sinks into that pat-fill-in-the-blank-on-the-back territory.
Additionally, there are ten Seu Jorge interpretations of
David Bowie songs; an intern video journal that is fun but contains, again,
more glad-handing; The Look Aquatic making-of about the production
design of the film; and the Aquatic Life documentary about the work of
Henry Selick and the stop-motion characters of the film.
What all that amounts to is one of the best presentations
of a Wes Anderson film yet.† Neither the
Rushmore nor Tenenbaums DVDs can match The Life Aquatic
disc in terms of the sheer amount of extra features.† And while quantity doesnít always quality, it does so here and
Criterion should be commended for its commitment to the work of Wes Anderson
and continually presenting his films on DVD in ways befitting a filmmaker as
interesting and talented as Anderson is.
-†† Dante A.