Internationally famous oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew—Team Zissou—set sail on an expedition to hunt down the mysterious, elusive, possibly nonexistent Jaguar Shark that killed Zissou's partner during the documentary filming of their latest adventure. They are joined on their voyage by a young airline copilot (Owen Wilson); a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett); and Zissou’s estranged wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). Wes Anderson has assembled an all-star cast that also includes Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor, Seu Jorge, and Bud Cort for this wildly original adventure comedy.
When it comes to Wes Anderson titles, I believe 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' is his most forgotten – and undeservedly so. Sure, it's odd. The story's direction doesn't follow a straight line. The moral may be harder to uncover than we like. And the laughs may not be as rich as in his other pictures. But it's still a fantastic film and one easily worth revisiting now that it has been given the Criterion touch.
Possibly Anderson's most ambitious film to date, 'The Life Aquatic' follows a marine explorer and his crew on a documented journey to find an elusive new class of shark. The leader of this pack of unprofessional misfits is Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Unfortunately, he's not the money behind the operation. That's where his wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) comes into play. With her inherited cash flow, and his ignorant motivation, they take their ship, the Belafonte, and crew of strange characters across the sea while filming oceanic documentaries that play at small film festivals.
Zissou and his crew weren't always the industry joke that they've become. At one time, they were viewed as the top of the food chain. Children loved the tales of their explorations. But as science caught up with them, they were revealed for what they were -- hacks and unprofessional fans of adventure -- not educated pros. Luckily, our dim-witted characters are oblivious to how the world views them. Carrying the arrogance of their glory days, they're still the kings of oceanic exploration in their own eyes.
The movie opens at the premiere of Zissou's latest documentary in Italy. This film documents a tragedy in the crew's journeys: the death of a crew member, Steve's lifelong best friend Esteban. There's no underwater footage of his death, only that from the deck of the Belafonte as Steve arose from the red sea in shock from what he'd just seen – a new class of shark, which Steve names the Jaguar Shark, ate Esteban whole. Without footage, the documentary's viewers are skeptic of the shark's existence, but having landed a tracker on the shark's fin prior to coming topside, Steve makes his announcement that he and his crew will be heading back to sea to find the new species … and kill it.
As is typical with a Wes Anderson film, the story is rich with unique characters. The plot to the movie itself is completely simple, but like real life, people complicate things. First, we meet a young pilot (Owen Wilson) who approaches Steve because he's learned that, due to a one-night stand long ago, Steve might be his father. Then we meet a prim and proper pregnant-out-of-wedlock reporter (Cate Blanchett) who will be joining the Belafonte crew for their duration of the expedition. On top of that, Steve's wife leaves him for the next character, a tycoon competitor (Jeff Goldblum), so the money behind their hunt of the Jaguar Shark quickly dries up. Through it all, we get invested in the characters and their motivations; we get wrapped up in the movie's emotion and action-packed (yes, really) tension; and, if we put the work into uncovering the symbolism, we get a few solid morals to the story.
Although relatively slow in nature, 'The Life Aquatic' is carried along by great supporting elements. First, there are the characters. In addition to those aforementioned, the supporting cast includes Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Noah Taylor and numerous other actors who truly lend themselves to the movie's greatness. One of them is Brazilian actor/musician, Seu Jorge, who appears throughout playing acoustic guitar versions of David Bowie's hits in Portuguese. He not only offers in-movie music, but some of its great soundtrack. Which leads me to the next element: style. Although varying from movie to movie, Wes Anderson has a trademark style. 'The Life Aquatic' is the title that really starts to show off who Anderson is and how he directs. The visual and musical style of the film is completely unique. For all of the sea creatures, Anderson went to 'Nightmare Before Christmas' stop-motion director Henry Selick. Every living thing in the ocean (and outside the ocean) is completely stop motion animated. While this decision may sound odd, seeing it in action shows it to be a brilliant, gorgeous and playfully successful decision.
Is 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' Wes Anderson's best film? No. But it's still a great collaborative work of entertaining art (which I can't say for 'Moonrise Kingdom'). If you'll put forth the thought to understand the morals that it teaches, then you'll see that it shouldn't be the forgotten Wes Anderson film that it is.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection has placed 'The Life Aquatic' on a Region A BD-50 in a standard-to-the-Collection clear keepcase that reads #300 on the spine. Opening the case reveals more illustration art printed on the back of the cover art sheet. The mandatory Criterion booklet inside contains more art, cast/crew details, notes about the film's transfer and a text conversation between Wes and Eric Anderson. The cellophane wrapping around the case features the signature "director approved" sticker from Criterion and Anderson. Nothing plays before the main menu; you're taken directly to the alternating animated main menu.
'The Life Aquatic' sails onto Blu-ray with a fantastic 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It's blatantly obvious that Criterion assigned their A team to this magnificent transfer.
There are several great consistencies within this Blu-ray's video quality. From opening to closing, the picture is absolutely clean and clear. In fact, it looks so nice that if you didn't know better, you'd never guess that 'The Life Aquatic' was a 10-year-old catalog title. Nightime scenes, of which there are many, feature rich and deep black levels that never falter. A slight amount of film grain also lies over the picture. Without a single aging flaw, the gorgeous imagery created by Anderson and Company lies in near-perfect detail on the Blu-ray.
So, what's keeping the video quality from being perfect? A slight amount of softness in the picture and a mildly oversaturated scene. Neither are an ongoing problem, but from time to time, they pop up. Occasionally, the picture shifts into the hazy zone. Should-be sharp lines are blurred, the fine edges not visible. The reason this sporadic flaw caught my attention is because the remainder of the film carries such great highly detailed definition. You'll notice the individual white hairs in Steve's beard, the textures of the crew's uniforms and the sharp, crisp lines throughout the rest of the picture. Filled with bright primaries in the real world, colors are loud and vibrant. Animated sea life carries another spectrum of pastel-like colors that are equally attractive – but one scene, around the 19-minute mark, is coated in oversaturated sunset lighting, the colors of which completely remove the textures of the actors' faces. Lucky for us, those are the only two mild things that ding this five-star video presentation down to four-and-a-half stars.
'The Life Aquatic' hits Blu-ray with a single lossless audio track - English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio – that's just as fantastic as the video quality. While the effects and vocals are equally mixed throughout all the channels, constantly keeping them active, the music is my personal favorite aspect of the mix. From the David Bowie covers to the bouncy notes of the score popping around, the music always adds to the film's desired tone.
Despite featuring a large budget of $50 million, coming after Anderson's first big indie hit, 'The Royal Tenenbaums,' 'The Life Aquatic' features a very raw indie style in its sound recording and mixing. The vocal and effects levels are quite raw. With big chunks of the film set on the ocean, there are plenty of natural oceanic sounds filling the mix, as if these scenes don't have any foley effects whatsoever. Waves crash against the Belafonte's hull, seabirds caw loudly and ambient engine noise is unmistakable. With the ocean and the Belafonte playing characters, it's only proper that they carry lively sounds of their own.
The vocals also carry this same raw and natural characteristic. When conversations turn into contentious yelling in the confines of the ship's cramped belly, the sounds of the actors' voices bounce and echo. During scenes set on the beach or the deck of the ship, the actors almost sound like their projecting louder than normal to get over the sea sounds. There's only one scene that features bad audio: when Steve and his could-be son chat on the deck of the Belafonte. Their conversation sounds like bad '60s ADR that may have been recorded in the makeshift sound studio aboard the Belafonte. It sounds tinny, hollow, and ugly. Luckily, the audio in this scene is the only real flaw in the presentation.
While 90-something percent of the special features are presented in 1080i video, their footage is still raw and of standard def quality.
'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' has finally made its way to Blu-ray. Wes Anderson took some big risks on this, his first ambitious big budget picture. Certainly strange and slow, it requires a patient mind willing to analyze and process the picture in order to find its real worth, but those who do, know that its a solid entry in the Wes Anderson canon. Multiple viewings only make it a stronger film. Criterion has worked magic with the transfer of this 10-year-old flick, giving it pristine, near-perfect video and audio qualities. On top of that, all of the many special features from their DVD release have been ported over to the Blu-ray. Literally, you couldn't possibly ask for more special features. Aside from still-in-theaters 'The Grand Budapest Hotel,' all of Anderson's feature films can now be found on Blu-ray. This is highly recommended.