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Round 2 Pick 5 January 22

“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”

Category:  Action/Adventure (that’s also a comedy!)

Many of you remember when there were only three or four television stations, and nature shows were standard fare.  One of them was, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”  Every week Jacques and his crew, from the seafaring ship, the “Calypso,” would don their SCUBA gear and launch themselves into the great blue to interact with deep sea critters.  As a side note, the invent.com website says, “Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan together invented the modern demand regulator used in underwater diving. Their invention allowed for the equipment known as the Aqualung, or self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), enabling safer and deeper dives.”  The series aired from 1968 – 1976.  In my research I learned that some of the episodes were narrated by none other than Rod Serling!  Why am I telling you this?  It’s because “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is a loving tribute to this show and the man with vision who inspired it.

link to photo:  https://divingalmanac.com/gagnan-emile/#!

The film was released in 2004 and was directed by Wes Anderson, who needs to have a genre named after him.  His movies have a personalized stamp on them where it is unimaginable to mistake his work for anyone else’s. Aside from his short films, I’ve seen every one he’s made.  “The Life Aquatic…” (TLA) is the fourth feature length film.  Probably the two most consistent features that characterize his films are quirkiness and human-heartedness.

Another consistent feature in Wes’ movies are his casting choices.  He has a core ensemble that has been with him throughout and each usually shows up somewhere in each movie.  Others come and go, but each one has to possess what I will call a child-like spirit in order to pass through the curtain and into his realm. 

For TLA, our marvelous cast includes Bill Murray as the fearless captain, Steve Zissou. I love how fit he looks in this, and I love how he plays the character, which is textured like a painting by a master is textured.  He’s a lovable rascal who is also a bastard; but we learn he is also a man of substance. 

Owen Wilson plays Ned Plimpton, the Kentucky airlines pilot who just shows up one day and wants to know if Steve is his father.  Wilson plays Ned with a naivete and tenderness that hurts to watch it’s so good.  Murray and Wilson’s chemistry is a joy to behold.

Cate Blanchette plays Jane Winslett-Richardson, a journalist for a big publication that has been assigned to write a character piece on Steve.  She likes chewing gum and is pregnant by a married man who has dumped her.  She sees through Steve’s facade and puts up with his nastiness, but her mind is compiling one hell of a story for her publication.  She’s also a sucker for a naive man-child trying to find his place in the world.

Anjelica Huston plays Eleanor Zissou, Steve’s gorgeous, no-nonsense, fabulously wealthy wife.  She often helps lead the crew, but she’s also mercurial, which can cause problems at inopportune times.

Willem Dafoe plays Klaus Daimler, who is a unflinchingly loyal member of Team Zissou.  He’s also neurotic, jealous, and childish.  He’s like a pouty puppy, but he would defend you to the death if needed.

Jeff Goldblum plays Alistair Hennessey, the oceanographer to the stars, somehow getting all of the accolades and funding for the best projects.  He is patently gay, but at the same time he’s competing with Steve for the affections of Eleanor, Steve’s wife.

Image link:  https://www.forgetfulfilmcritic.com/home/2019/03/01/the-life-aquatic-with-steve-zissou

There is a large support cast that throws their tantalizing seasoning into the mix, including Michael Gambon as the finance liaison for a lot of earlier Team Zissou adventures; Noah Taylor as one of the crew; Bud Cort, the bean counter dragged along to keep track of expenses; Seu Jorge, a Brazilian crew member who loves to sing David Bowie songs; Robyn Cohen, the sexy crew member who walks around topless; Waris Ahluwalia as the turbaned cinematographer crew member; Seymour Cassel as Esteban du Plantier, Steve’s long-term co-lead of the crew whose death is the impetus for the adventure the plot focuses on.  And many many more, including a pair of albino dolphins!

Now that the cast has been introduced let’s move on to the plot.  It begins in an auditorium with a posh crowd and Steve up on stage.  The audience has just witnessed video footage of Esteban hanging onto the edge of, “The Belafonte” and being pulled under to his death by an unseen predator.  Steve tries to save Esteban and gets a good look at the predator before being pulled up on board.  He vows to the audience that he will hunt down the beast — described as one that nobody has ever seen before and whom many don’t believe even exists — to avenge his friend’s death.

youtube clip (will you please make youtubes opens in your post you can preview it to see if they do.  If they don’t will you go to youtube and refresh the links?)

What nobody is saying but what becomes apparent is that many previous financiers think Steve is all washed up and aren’t interested in funding this last hare-brained proposal to hunt what could be a non-existent beast.  The long-term finance liaison gets some nibbles but with conditions.  Steve’s wife can help out a little. Then walks in Ned, possibly Steve’s long-lost son, who is an unexpected source of funding.

The adventure is on its way, and lots of things happen on the journey.  I won’t give away any spoilers.  If you aren’t intrigued by now, plot points won’t convince you.  

Besides the sea theme and the underwater adventures other details pay tribute to Cousteau.  His ship was the “Calypso” and Zissou’s is the “Belafonte.”  Both Cousteau and Zissou wear red knit caps.  There are a lot of insider references beyond the Cousteau connection as well. 

Quirky bits that I adored in TLA include how they filmed the “Belafonte” with many scenes showing it as an open sectioned model that shows where the crew members are and what they are doing all at once. 

Youtube clip:  https://youtu.be/d1RnYfFZK2k

I loved Seu Jorge sitting here and there on the ship singing David Bowie songs.

youtube clip:   https://youtu.be/lryAWxnEIZk

Besides Seu singing Bowie, the rest of the soundtrack is fabulously composed by musical genius Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo as you’ve never heard him before. Also compelling are the extraordinary locations members of Team Zissou find themselves in, including an abandoned island resort, a fully stocked emergency sea station, an opulent home set in the side of a mountain, and of course Eleanor’s island.  I loved the fabulous fashioned sea critters they come across, animated for audience enjoyment. 

The interrelationships are the winning secret recipe in all Wes Anderson movies.   They draw you in and hold you tenderly.  Laughing, crying, feeling is what life is all about and he imbues his films full of them.

What didn’t I like about the film?  Not a thing.  It’s as perfect as a movie can be.

On rating scale of 1-10:



  1. I have relegated myself to ‘lurker’ in the movie draft, because I simply haven’t watched enough movies in my life to be a contributor to the discussion. But I love this choice! My brother had me watch TLA about 4 years ago, and without knowing who made it, I instantly saw the connection to Grand Budapest Hotel (also Wes Anderson), and I was hooked. I appreciate the backstory you provided. The nod to Cousteau is unmistakable, but I didn’t know anything else. I’ve forgotten much of the TLA story now, so you have me wanting to watch it again.

    • Diana, glad this was one you had seen before and enjoyed. Glad you learned some on the backstory, and that you want to see it again. It is a real charmer of a tale.

  2. As Run-sew-read says, your review made me want to watch it again. I find not everyone ‘gets’ it but I love it- one of my most valued DVDs. Probably helps my family watched a lot of Cousteau as a kid. Excellent review!

    • Ditto on valued DVDs, Dave, and I”m so glad you “get” it. I remember loving the Cousteau show also. I learned during research for this that his wife was part of the crew also.

  3. Lisa your review makes me want to see this…I cannot believe I’ve never even seen/heard of this movie. I love anything with Bill Murray. Thanks for bringing this one up.

  4. I remember when this movie came out. I was in Texas at the time but, never got around to seeing it. It came out a year after Lost in Translation. Murray had finally emerged from the 90s where his career became a bit gray (exception…Groundhog Day) compared to his gigantic status in the 80s. He does quirky SO well. A outtake from Zombieland, he started to channel Carl from Caddyshack.

    I need to see this. I grew up watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Luckily, we still have Attenborough purring on BBC America. Thanks for the backstory, Lisa. I had no idea that it was a reference to Cousteau. My favorite Denver song is “Calypso.”

  5. Oh my! Wes Anderson is the master when it comes to symmetry. I loved the small CGI segments in it, his colors are so well laid out especially with the outfits!!!! But the story is one of my favorites in cinematic history, and Bill Murray does such a great job in this. Great pick!

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