Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

'Life Aquatic' Dives Deep

In a good year for quirky meditations, add a last specimen to the aquarium.

Dorothy Woodend 31 Dec

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

image atom

Wes Anderson's new film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a good way to end 2004. It was, after all, a very odd year, a year when we wanted films to be both hip and ironic as well as mushy and sentimental. We wanted it all: the sea life and the see life; to watch and be watched, but most of all to understand, what the hell is it all about?

Although the film makers of 2004 didn't have many answers, they certainly asked the big questions around tongues stuck firmly in cheeks. Directors like David O. Russell, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and films like Garden State or The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, all plowed similar depths, but Anderson and his odd oeuvre are the most indicative of this school of cinema.

The Life Aquatic is populated by brilliantly coloured, unusual specimens and that's not counting the fish. Life above the water is as strangely evolved as life beneath the waves and the biggest, weirdest fish is Steve Zissou himself, a dissolute oceanographer who, with his misfit crew and his dilapidated jalopy of a boat, plows the oceans of the world, seeking adventure and filming whatever comes their way. With their powder blue uniforms and scarlet caps, the crew of the Belafonte rival any school of tropical fish.

Scary speedo

The film opens with a documentary about the death of Steve Zissou's closest friend at the jaws of the elusive and mysterious Jaguar Shark. Zissou is determined to have his revenge: man against the sea style.

Bill Murray bears more than a passing resemblance to Hemingway, with his silver beard and bear-like girth. He even wants to be called Papa Steve. But on this, his final voyage, he's saddled with an ex-wife ("She's a rich bitch, raised by maids"), some guy who might be his long lost son (Anderson regular Owen Wilson), a lovelorn German (Willem Dafoe), a Russian scientist, a bunch of unpaid interns, a Japanese seaman who seems to be suffering from Minimata disease, and a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett) who comes between a father and son reunion.

Things are complicated even before the Belafonte is attacked by pirates and set on fire. But when the chips are down, old Steve Z. comes through with guns a blazing. After his boat is attacked, he routes the brigands with only a speedo and a glock. Which is the more frightening accessory is hard to say. The unpaid interns have had enough and jump ship at this point, leaving the remaining crew to rescue the stooge from Bank (played by Bud Cort). Bud Cort, you say! Yes, the very same Harold.

Anderson's debt to Harold and Maude has been well documented, and here he continues his homage, although with David Bowie instead of Cat Stevens songs. It's odd that even before I went to see the film I was talking about Harold and Maude and trying desperately to remember Ruth Gordon's last name. The more things change, the more they don't change at all.

Anderson's love of older things -- the earnest documentary style of Jacques Cousteau, the references to Moby Dick -- are carefully assembled. The film is like a particularly gifted boy filling his aquarium with shining bits of coral and fringed, spiny creatures. There is the sense that we are meant to observe the proceedings from beneath a thick sheet of glass. Many shots are entirely static, giving you time to look at all the details that surround the characters, while they stand stock still and issue lines in a monotone voice. The set itself is a marvel of design. The Belafonte is cut in ha or a terrarium in which we can watch the inhabitants of this strange world, busily going about their business. In this case, they're having saunas, singing songs in Portuguese and smoking big fatties. Anderson's other films, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums made similar use of their environs, in which place affects people as much as people affect place. But unlike these earlier films, The Life Aquatic pulls you into its element through the power of Bill Murray and David Bowie, the combo is like a one two punch, and in you go, fully immersed.

The Aqua-Liberace

Mark Mothersbaugh (of DEVO) is responsible for the film's original music, and he deserves some props. But the heart and heft of the film lays upon the shoulders of Bill Murray. Zissou eventually has to face the fact that he's a "showboat and a bit of a prick" but Murray makes this egotistical dink into someone truly heroic. No mean feat. Men and the sea, semen and seamen, it all comes down to love in the end when Zissou finally meets the epic Jaguar Shark. If Liberace is reincarnated, he might return looking something like this: huge, full of teeth and covered in shining leopard print. FABULOUS!! Steve Z. must decide whether to exact revenge on this exceptional example of evolution, or let live. Does he do the right thing? What is the right thing?

In time Wes Anderson's films may become symptomatic of early 21st century cinema, a period characterized by characters who are searching for connection. But underneath the flat delivery of lines and ironic self-reflexiveness there is genuine pain. In a recent interview with the New York Metro, Anderson tried to describe this fine line: "There's some kind of weird metaphor that we were striving for, that we didn't want to shy away from. I think you can walk the edge between the corny thing and the thing that moves you: That's what you hope for."

Corny is a good word for it, but is corny such a bad thing?

Irony vs. corn

Genuine, earnest, potentially embarrassing honesty is something that many film makers rarely embrace, except for a few notable examples. Like Anderson, David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees comes at the larger questions at a slant. Whether this oblique approach is the result of the peculiar times in which we find ourselves, or the result of too much art theory, is hard to say. But there is nothing all that hugely new here either. These films remind one of the same winsomely questioning young men played by Bud Cort and Dustin Hoffman thirty years ago, and oddly enough, the self-same actors often turn up in films with younger versions of themselves. The echoes of the past circle back around. Young men still come of age and wonder what it's all about; older men wonder the same thing; and in between are women, mysterious sirens who possess some essential mystery that they're occasionally willing to share.

If connection is really what it's ultimately about, Anderson has succeeded with The Life Aquatic. In its own unique fashion, it will make you feel better about the big wet sloppy human family.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.


  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about AI?

Take this week's poll