The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is the 4th film of Anderson’s. It follows a washed up, no pun intended, ocean biographer, Steve, who vows to exact revenge on a “Jaguar Shark” who killed his best friend and partner during their filming of a documentary.
Steve is a pompous, self-centered, insecure man who feels like his life is falling apart. He is afraid that his best days are in the past, and his life will continue degenerating. He is cheating on his wife, running out of money, and is no longer respected as a captain, biographer, or human being. He’s become caught up in the idea of him being The Zissou in Team Zissou. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Max, and Royal, he no longer understands who he is, just who he was. He is aware that he is not living up to his reputation.
“Do you all not like me anymore,” he asks his crew later in the film, “I mean, what am I supposed to do? I don’t know.”
Though The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is fueled by a Moby Dick-like vengeance, it also features the sub plots of him finding someone who may be his son, his marriage being on the rocks, a pregnant reporter who is invited onto his ship to write about his newest expedition and whom both he and his son find themselves attracted to, pirates, and a bisexual ex-husband of his current wife who is his nemesis.
Obviously, this is a plot that could get tangled, confusing, and unbelievable very quickly. As Nathan R. Ossmann wrote, “…this film constantly walks the fine line between zany brilliance and sprawling catastrophe.” Only Anderson could keep this film from getting messy. However, many reviewers disagree that this movie succeeded in being clear and realistic, and it is one of Anderson’s most harshly criticized film.
What I have always respected about Anderson, is that he does not go for the easy fix to have his film realized. When he uses CGI and fancy effects, he purposefully makes them unrealistic. Though his set is very stylized, it is also real. Most directors wouldn’t actually buy a real ship, and especially wouldn’t recreate it. This leads to a lost art of stage in film. Anderson resists the wold of computer animation, and I’m very happy that he does.
The movie is filmed in a jittery way, which makes Steve’s documentary show truly come to life. In some scenes, there is also a binocular view, like in Moonrise Kingdom, which gives the film a personal feeling.
The movie begins with the release of part one of Steve’s newest installment, which includes the gruesome, though unseen, death of his friend. His film is not well received. He is laughed at. The audience suspects that he faked the death for publicity. One man in the audience even goes as far as to mock the documentary by asking, “Who are you going to kill in part two?”
During the after party, he is confronted by a young pilot, Ned Plympton, who claims to be his son. Steve excuses himself, smokes, and then returns. He had been expecting this meeting for years, but it had still taken him by surprise. Steve invites Ned to be part of the crew for his next voyage, after realizing that a father-son subplot could make his film seem more interesting. Ned agrees. Steve also persuades Ned to invest thousands of dollars into his film, after comprehending that no one else would sponser the trip.
Ned is a standard southern gentleman. Steve learns that his mother killed herself just a few monthes prior.
In response to this, Steve replies, “You know my best friend just was killed.”
This conversation is reminiscent of the father-son moment between Royal and Chas in The Royal Tenenbaums. However, unlike Royal at that point, Steve hadn’t yet undergone a life changing metamorphasis.
Before the crew sets out onto sea, Steve’s wife, who is also known as the “brains” of Team Zissou, leaves him. She doesn’t want to be a part of whatever is going to happen.
“I can’t believe you took that boy’s money,” she says.
“He’s my sidekick,” Steve replies.
They watch a girl crab fight the boy crab on the beach. The girl crab steals his arm. She leaves after watching the “mating”.
Steve does like the idea of a “sidekick”. He needs the attention, the adoration, and the love. At one point, Steve is asked why he believes in Ned. He says that it is because Ned looks up to him. Ned has worshipped him since Ned was a child. He had even written a fan letter to Steve when he was younger. (The importance of letters in this Anderson film is comparable to Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, though most of the letters in that film were dictated, not shown on screen, and Moonrise Kingdom.)
With Steve himself, and the world, questioning if he is any good anymore, Ned’s interest in him is more important than ever. However, this means that he’s using Ned for both emotional and economic reasons. Steve even changes Ned’s name to Kingsley Zissou.
Ned, on the other hand, just wants a family. His mother has died. He wants to find out what the father-son relationshipthat he missed throughout his whole life is like.
Steve is not actively trying to be a jerk. He is a complicated man. Later in the film, Ned asks why Steve never tried to contact him. Steve replies, “Because I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one.” Though Steve does struggle to be a good person, he does try. “Are you finding what you’re looking for out here with me? I hope so,” he says at one point.
Jane Richardson, the pregnant reporter, arrives just days before the crew sets off to find the shark. The father of her child is her married editor. Steve is infatuated with her, even though she is much younger than him. He immediately tells his crew, “not this one,” as if she is something he can control.
Their relationship is awkward. She refuses his advances, and ends up falling in love with his son. Steve warns his son away from the reporter. When it becomes apparent that they are falling in love, Steve becomes increasingly jealous.
At one point, Steve takes her up in his hot air balloon. She compliments him. It is obvious that he was her childhood hero.
“Maybe it’s just me,” he tells her, “but I don’t feel like that person. I never did.”
He moves in to kiss her. She turns her face away.
“Why did you abandon, Ned,” she asks. Steve lowers the balloon, and leaves in response.
She aggravates him. Sometimes he calls her mean names in front of Ned. However, he is still keen to look cool in front of her. Later in the movie, Ned offers some insight about the voyage.
Steve pulls him aside afterward and says, “Do me a favor, next time you have a hot idea in front of the reporter, whisper it in my ear first.”
And yet, you have to feel bad for Steve. At another point in the movie, he breaks into her room, and reads the paper she had written about the voyage thus far. She gets angry with him.
He tells her, “Please don’t make fun of me. I just wanted to flirt with you.”
Right after setting off to sea, Steve steals his nemesis’ charting equipment. He finds that the Jaguar Shark isn’t too far away. Steve decides to travel on a course through unprotected waters to save money. Ned, who is supposed to be on watch, is instead with Jane. Steve sees, and feels betrayed.
The Belafonte is hijacked by Fillipino pirates. They take Ned hostage. Billy, a bond company stooge who is on the boat to moniter Steve’s spending, speaks the pirate’s language. They take the stooge hostage instead. They steal Steve’s vault of money.
The crew is crying and praying. They are blindfolded. Steve attacks the pirates in an adrenaline-packed dream-like sequence. The pirates escape with Billy, leaving their three-legged dog on The Belafonte.
After this event, his crew begins to question him. They had been with him thus far because they remembered how inspired he was before, even though that quality had begun to wane. Now though, some members are fed up.
“We’re being led on an illegal, suicide mission by a selfish maniac,” one crewmate says.
However, there are still some people who still respected him.
“I hear what you’re saying, but I think you misjudge the guy,“ responds Klause, a member of the crew who views Steve as a father.
Steve decides to settle the mutiny by the line test. Any crewmember that is fed up with Steve and is going to quit will cross the line.
“That was one of the most dramatic things that has happened on the boat,” Steve says later.
During a funeral the crew was having for one of the murdered pirates, Steve’s nemesis arrives in response to their distress signal. They throw the pirate overboard, and quickly hide the objects they have stolen.
His nemesis boasts that Steve’s wife is staying at his villa. Steve decides to pay her a visit to apologize and ask for money.
During it, he asks, “What’s happened to me? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever going to be good again?”
She doesn’t say anything to console him, but does cigarette kiss him.
After returning from seeing his wife, Steve walks in on his son and the reporter together. He feels betrayed. He slams the door, and stomps away. Ned follows him.
“I misread you, man,” Steve tells him
“You don’t know me,” Ned replies, “You never wanted to know me. I’m just a character in your film.”
They throw some punches on the roof.
“You call yourself my son, but I just don’t see it,” Steve says scathingly
“I can’t believe that I asked if I could call you, Dad,” Ned tells him.
“I let you call me Stevesy,” Steve replies
“It doesn’t mean the same thing,” Ned says.
“A week before my mother killed myself,” Ned continues, “she told me that you knew about me my whole life. Is that a fact?”
Steve says, “It is.”
Steve’s wife returns to help the voyage not fall apart. Steve is confident that with her back on the team, everything just may be all right. Steve’s wife and the reporter talk. His wife tells her that it is impossibility that Ned is his child.
The next adventure the Belafonte crew goes on is a rescue mission for the bond company stooge. Off the island they suspect the pirates to be on, they find Steve’s nemesis’ ship capsized. It is obvious that the same pirates kidnapped them.
The pirates are hiding in an abandoned hotel, which happens to be where Steve and his first wife went to for their honeymoon. During the rescue mission, Steve falls down the stairs of the hotel.
“A washed up old man with no friends, no distribution deal, wife on the rocks, people laughing at him, feeling sorry for himself,” he says.
He asks to talk to Ned.
“By the way, I’ve been trying to figure out a nickname that might mean the right thing. I came up with Papa Steve.”
Ned offers him his hand, and helps him up.
Steve apologizes for not acknowledging Ned sooner. He promises that it won’t happen again. “You are like a son to me. Even more so. You see, for me to meet a guy like you at this time in my life, uh…I want to communicate my feelings to you. But I might cry.”
Ned tells him that it’s ok.
The crew finds the bond company stooge in a closet. Steve finds himself face to face with the pirates, who are playing poker with his nemesis whose whole crew was murdered. A battle ensues.
After dynamite is thrown, leaving the hotel in ruins. They run for the ship, while trying to dodge bullets. They find the stolen safe empty of the money, but escape with their lives. Cody, the three-legged dog, is left on the beach. Steve wants to retrieve him, but his crew refuses.
Steve gives up on the mission. He decides that he is going to retire after selling the boat and the machinery in it for scrap. Ned, however, persuades him to continue to search for the Jaguar shark. He points out that he has thousands invested, and that they are so close to it now.
Ned convinces Steve to go up one last time in the helicopter to search for the shark from the sky. They set off with the group wishing them off. Klaus, who had had some conflict throughout the film with Ned, makes peace with him. They salute each other. Jane gives Ned a letter; when Steve asks what it says, Ned replies, “Nothing to speak of.” Steve respects this, and accepts that she and Ned are going to continue to be together.
In the air, Steve shows Ned that he still has Ned’s fan mail that he had written him. In the letter, Ned asked whether Steve wished that he could breathe underwater. Ned says that he still wishes that he could. Steve agrees.
Things begin to go wrong.
The helicopter crashes.
Steve finds Ned holding onto an inflatable float. “Hi, Stevesy,” Ned says airily. He never calls Steve, Papa Steve. Ned is losing blood.
This scene is so contrasting to the rest of the film. The majority of the movie is like a dream. This scene, however, is so violent and sharp. It exemplifies how fragile life is. His death is so unexpected, so quick, so heartbreaking.
It is, however, not entirely unforeseen for a searching eye. There are multiple foreshadowings before the event. Ned tells Steve after he is invited to be part of the crew that he doesn’t know how to swim. He even drowns in Steve’s pool during the pre-voyage training. Before he is resisitated, his heart stops beating. On an earlier trip in the helicopter, Ned even asks, “When was this whirlybird last serviced?”
The first time I saw this film, Ned’s death was completely shocking. I hadn’t anticipated it at all. Anderson had never before used a present character death to shake the viewer out of the dream state of his films.
However, there are always a few events in each of his films that do awaken the audience, and the characters, who have become enveloped in their fantasies. In Rushmore, it was Ms. Cross asking Max what he imagined their relationship being like if they ever got together. In The Royal Tenenbaums it is Richie’s attempted suicide, and Eli’s car crash.
Back on the boat, the crew holds a funeral for Ned. Jane gives Ned the rest of her letters. Ned is wrapped in the insignia that he made for Team Zissou. His pilot colleagues from Kentucky are there. They throw his casket into the sea.
Steve informs his wife that he planned that they would adopt Ned, because he thinks that it would’ve meant a lot to Ned. Eleanor says that she would’ve thought about it.
Ned’s death transformed Steve. He now realized that he had been trying to be someone he wasn’t. This character transformation is similar to Royal in The Royal Tenenbaums, and Max in Rushmore.
Jane shows Steve the first draft of her article. He says that at first he was a little embaressed because it made him seem like a jerk, but then he realized that that was just who he was. He compliments her writing. They are no longer tense around each other, for they share the same loss.
One of the crew identifies the signal of the Jaguar Shark.The team files into the submarine to search for it. They wait. Fish swim past their submarine. A large spotted shark, much larger then their submarine, follows the fish.
“Are we safe in here,” someone asks.
“I doubt it,” Steve replies.
“It’s beautiful, Steve,” his wife tells him.
In that moment, Steve forgives it for killing his best friend, and himself for becoming what he has and losing his son. The team all reach out their hands in support. He cries.
Unlike part one of Steve’s film, this one becomes an instant classic during its release. The whole crew is there; even Jane with her child. Zissou is not. He is outside smoking. Klaus’ nephew comes and sits by him. Steve gives him Ned’s Team Zissou ring.
“This is an adventure,” Steve tells him.
Ossmann, Nathan. "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." . N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan 2013.