(4) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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Wes Anderson takes us for a ride into the open sea with his fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Join Steve (Bill Murray), a renowned but washed-up oceanographer, as he takes on the quest of hunting down the “jaguar shark” that devoured his best friend during the filming of a documentary. He is accompanied by his crew, his recently acknowledged son and a reporter who’s writing a cover story on him. This is the story of what happens when they face the hardships of the sea and of getting along.

By this point in time, Anderson has found himself a solid set of cinematographic conventions to by, although he keeps on finding new ways to use them. For instance, he has become more liberal in his use of text on screen. In Rushmore, he made use of intertitles only to signal the passing of time. Here, he uses text to signal time and location, identify objects, and even convey information about what’s taking place.

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The colour schemes in The Life Aquatic might be the most appropriate so far, since the blues and yellows do a wonderful job at capturing its maritime motif. The scattered hints of red in a scene are usually due to the characters’ hats, making it easier for us to identify them.

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Although he’s not as heavy on close ups as he was in previous films, Anderson remains consistent in his use of symmetrical composition and overhead shots. He especially takes advantage of the panoramic views, since the ocean allows him plenty of space to work with. He also does a bit of experimentation in terms of video editing and jump cuts, most notably in the scene where Steve and Ned’s (Owen Wilson) aircraft crashes, as seen in the clip below.

But let’s talk about the story. The Life Aquatic tackles themes of a nostalgic longing for the past, as well as the denial and acceptance of our present. Steve finds himself wondering how it is that he got to where he is in life, and whether it will get any better. The problem is that instead of trying his best to change himself and his situation for the better, he wastes his time on indifference and self-pity. This allows for some contrast with other characters, such as Ned and Jane (Cate Blanchett), who are burdened with their own problems but still struggle to get by.

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The pacing doesn’t suffer due to Anderson’s typical laid back approach, but his dialogue does. Considering the emotional distress and the impact of some of the events that took place, you’d expect something more of a reaction than the usual deadpan. As Anthony Lane notes in this article from The New Yorker:

” After ‘Rushmore’ and ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, both of them graced by Bill Murray, we have grown accustomed to the unassailable claims of deadpan, although Anderson’s detractors might argue that underreaction, having begun as a show of hipness, has now frozen into a mannerism.”

Even though we get some sense of closure by the end of the story, there are still a few loose ends left untied. Not to say that this is a bad thing, since not all questions are answered in life, but we’re left with a sense of poignancy and an ending that is unclear as to whether it wants to leave us off on a hopeful note or not.

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