Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Bill Murray is Steve Zissou, a puffed up Jacque Cousteau wannabe. Once the toast of the movie world his star status is now on the wane.

In years gone by his glamorous undersea adventures had made him into a famous public figure. Zissou's face adorned the cover of magazines and he enjoyed lucrative celebrity endorsements (Adidas no less).

But the Zissou we meet cuts a pitiful figure. The public have grown tired of his oceanic explorations, forcing our Steve to scrounge a living by releasing kitschy documentaries to ever diminishing returns.

As if this wasn't a heavy enough blow to Zissou’s self-esteem, his wife (Angelica Houston) is on the verge of leaving him and his successful nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) seems to pop up everywhere just to rub his nose in his decline.

But just when it seems life can’t get any worse for Zissou it administers another sharp bony knee to the balls. During the making of his latest documentary his best friend (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by the elusive, and perhaps even fictional, Jaguar Shark.

This leads Zissou and his ragtag crew of oddballs on one last adventure to track down the mysterious creature, avenge his friend and perhaps find some kind of redemption.

Director Wes Anderson follows Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums with another bittersweet comedy/drama dealing with his usual preoccupations of age and strained family relationships.

The story’s gentle humour and trademark quirks won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and the plot does meander along. But - to use an appropriately watery metaphor - it’s rather like being on a rolling river in a foreign country. You can look at the strange flora and fauna passing by and be pleasantly surprised by every quirk that emerges around the next bend.

One such curveball is the helicopter explosion that gets thrown at us during the film’s finale. Zissou and his long lost “son” Ned (Owen Wilson) fly out to sea in search of the Jaguar Shark in a bright yellow chopper.

Unfortunately, due to Zissou’s funding problems it seems the helicopter has not been maintained in quite a while. As soon as it reaches cruising altitude there’s a loud snap as the rotor mechanism breaks. There are no histrionics or flashy pyrotechnics, just a shot of Zissou’s trademark Adidas as the sea looms in front of them. The stricken chopper and its passengers then complete their journey to Wetsville.

Artistic merit

Shoe's eye view of the helicopter crash
As to be expected from Wes Anderson the scene is chock full of imagination. Rather than use flashy CGI or old school pyrotechnics to create an explosive climax, Anderson chooses a ‘less is more approach‘.

Instead of the normal fire and flame combo as the chopper crash lands in the water, the explosion is depicted in avant-garde fashion. Rapidly cut shots of fizzing bubbles fill the screen spliced with flashes of red and a bizarre a flashback sequence with Owen Wilson in a cinema auditorium.

In place of the usual crash-bang sound of an explosion, there is just a high-pitched hum and some weird atmospherics. Once the chopper has “exploded” we cut to Murray, cradling a stricken Wilson as burning debris bob around them. Exploding helicopter purists may be aghast at the sight of so many genre conventions being subverted, but I found it all rather refreshing.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Its not often we see choppers crash due to matters as mundane as inadequate maintenance. It’s hard to see the insurance company paying out on this one, assuming Zissou could even afford to keep up the policy.

Do passengers survive?

Tragically, and in contravention of Exploding Helicopter’s Second Law of Filmmaking, one of the good guys gets killed. Overcome by his head injury, Ned drowns in the arms of the helpless Zissou after first making a few oblique metaphysical references.

Positives

Fully intact: the helicopter used in the film
On top of fabulous performance by Murray and Goldblum, this is an ensemble piece for which you would struggle to put together a better cast. Zissou’s crew of misfits includes a rare comic role for Willem Dafoe as German engineer Klaus and Cate Blanchett as a National Geographic reporter imbedded within the team.

Michael Gambon pops up as louche film producer and musician Seu Jorge appears as safety expert Pele dos Santos, who spends most of his time randomly playing samba versions of David Bowie songs on deck. It is completely bizarre but it works.

Mercifully this film is a CGI-free zone with Anderson aiming for a handmade look with his emphasis on colour saturation and stop motion animation for the undersea elements. The whole thing feels like a pop-up movie made in kindergarten by toddlers with film degrees.

While I found it charming I can easily see why this film would not appeal to a mainstream audience. You either buy into Anderson’s whimsy or you don’t. For those who didn’t enjoy it I’m sure another Adam Sandler movie will stink along in the near future which will better satisfy your tastes.

Negatives

When a movie shows this much charm and innovation it would be churlish to criticise it, so I won’t.

Favourite quote

Festival Director: (asking a question about the Jaguar Shark): That's an endangered species at most. What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?

Steve Zissou: Revenge.

Interesting fact

Most of the film was shot on the Italian Riviera where Bill Murray became a certified diver during the filming of the movie, logging over 40 diving hours between takes. And he got paid. Tough business this acting lark.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Still want more? Then check out our podcast episode on the film. Find it on iTunes, Stitcher, YourListen, Podomatic, or Acast.




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