There are films about filmmaking, and then there’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It’s not without precedent, as 8 1/2 and Stardust Memories also foreground their makers’ anxiety over breaking away from earlier work, but those movies came after clear aesthetic breaks and inevitable critical backlash. Wes Anderson’s film, on the other hand, rode a wave of mounting critical adulation that saw The Royal Tenenbaums winning the director his best reviews and a raised profile. Instead, The Life Aquatic’s outsized scale and undercurrent of defensive artistic misery seem a forecast for its own reception, making the film a preemptive reaction to itself.
Anderson’s heretofore popularity at festivals sharply diverges from that of the eponymous documentarian (Bill Murray). An Italian film-festival MC gives a glowing introduction to Steve’s latest film at the start of the movie, noting how well the festival adores the filmmaker. Judging from the silent response Zissou’s documentary receives, however, it becomes clear that he’s to this imaginary event what Atom Egoyan is to Cannes: a has-been still invited back time after time, seemingly just to give everyone an easy pick for the worst of the fest. In Steve’s film, the documentarian emerges from a cloud of bloody water that signifies the grisly consumption of his friend Esteban, but as the filmmaker gives a Q&A, it’s hard not to think that Esteban got off easy. To paraphrase an old maxim, dying’s easy, having to politely say whether a shot was intentional is hard.
Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach swiftly pile on professional and personal setbacks. Steve must contend with Ned (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who may be his son, and with a reporter (Cate Blanchett) who brings her bias as a disillusioned fan to bear on a hit piece of her design. These people could have major repercussions for Steve, but true to his single-mindedness, production problems like lack of funds or even just bad sound or a missed shot take equal precedence in Steve’s mind. As the aesthetic matches the protagonist’s POV, the film manages to be intricately designed even by Anderson’s standards. Indeed, none of his other features to date, not even the similar scaled The Grand Budapest Hotel nor the totally fabricated Fantastic Mr. Fox, feels as suffocatingly stylized. Not even the ocean escapes the oppressive aestheticization, with stop-motion sea creatures courtesy of Henry Selick, and everything is so impeccably ordered that even some of the film’s emotional beats become nothing more than exquisite set pieces.
Yet if The Life Aquatic takes Anderson’s fussiness to its breaking point, it also delves into emotional territory previously unexplored by the auteur. The usual dichotomy of a character’s elaborately arranged façade of a life gradually crumbling to reveal the fragile, unimpressive reality doesn’t apply here. We see Zissou the legend only as a collection of faded symbols: a well-worn fan-club ring, a reenacted iconic pose. Even Steve’s first guide through the ship and all of its amenities makes note of broken parts he cannot afford to fix. Steve appears already broken, with his failed career laid nakedly before the viewer, his crew, and himself. Murray handles this with great precision, never letting Steve delude himself, but rallying every remaining shred of dignity and authority not only to make one last film, but to assert his past sense of cool. In other words, Steve tries to be like Bill Murray, which only makes his quieter, more somber moments all the more bracing, as when he admits to his wife, “I know I haven’t been at my best this past decade.” Murray doesn’t grandstand for his dramatic beats; it wouldn’t be like him. Instead, he almost swallows Steve’s most vulnerable moments, as when the Ahab-esque documentarian finally finds the shark who ate his friend and can only hoarsely muse, “I wonder if it remembers me.”
If the party line on the film is that it’s Anderson’s weakest, an equally common sentiment is that it offers the most to discover with additional viewings. Small details, like Blanchett’s pregnant reporter trying to wean herself off swear words before she has her child, or the recurring bit of Steve renaming Ned, say so much about their characters with easily missed confessions and throwaway jokes. Furthermore, repeat watches allow for a greater appreciation for how the film’s wonky pacing, with its top-heavy amassing of issues and the second half’s shootouts, belie a controlled escalation of emotional stakes that unite the individual characters’ feelings and hopes under Steve’s own. Anderson is one of the most identifiable auteurs of his generation, but the sharpest point of The Life Aquatic is that singular cinematic visions can only be achieved with the help of dozens of people, and that an artist is ultimately saved from solipsism by obligation to those aides.
Criterion’s Wes Anderson releases aren’t only reliable coffer-fillers for the company, but consistently a showcase for the label’s A/V magic. The Life Aquatic is no exception: Its yellow-blue patterns are as bright as sun reflecting off the sea, and while the cast and crew have gone on record about the hassle of night shots out on the water, black levels are rich and free of crushing. The 5.1 surround channel is also unimpeachable, with excellent depth employed for the music cues, action sequences, and even dialogue. The ship sets may be constricting, but the soundtrack helps give the film some breathing room.
Extras are identical to Criterion’s 2005 DVD release of the film, but given the sheer amount of features included, one could hardly feel shortchanged. Densest of the extras a commentary track between Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and a 51-minute making-of documentary. The latter is almost redundant for a film that already seems to be its own behind-the-scenes account, but if nothing else the sheer amount of footage of Bill Murray dryly screwing around on set is entertaining. There’s also a shorter making-of featurette, an interview with Anderson and Baumbach on an Italian talk show, as well as interviews conducted by Criterion with cast members and score composer Mark Mothersbaugh. Video performances of Seu Jorge performing 10 David Bowie songs in Portuguese are also included, as well as still photos, a video journal by on- and off-screen intern Matthew Gray Gubler, deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, and an interview between Anderson and his brother Eric in the accompanying booklet.
Criterion’s upgrade of Wes Anderson’s most ambitious film is one of the label’s finest packages.