The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson's fourth feature length film and was released in the U.S. on December 25, 2004. It was written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach and was filmed in and around Naples, Rome and the Italian Riviera. The offbeat comedy stars Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, an eccentric oceanographer, who sets out to exact revenge on the "jaguar shark" that ate his partner Esteban. Murray's character is both a parody of and homage to Jacques-Yves Cousteau, to whom the film is dedicated.



This movie details the adventures of once-famed oceanographer and documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). His latest film covers the death of his best friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) by an animal Zissou describes as a "Jaguar shark". For his next project he is determined to find the creature and destroy it.

Steve's crew aboard his research vessel Belafonte includes Pelé dos Santos (Seu Jorge), safety expert and Brazilian musician who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), a lovable German second-in-command who views Steve and Esteban as father figures and feels threatened by Steve's presumed son, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson). Minor crew members include Vikram Ray (Waris Ahluwalia), a Sikh cameraman, described in Zissou's featured film documentary as a man "born on the Ganges"; Bobby Ogata (Niels Koizumi), Team Zissou's frogman who is usually seen eating (in the film he was seen eating a banana as Ned was diving and a sandwich in the sauna); Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), crew experimentator and original score composer; Renzo Pietro (Pamel Wdowczak), screen editor; and Anne-Marie Sakowitz (Robyn Cohen), a usually topless script girl. Sakowitz, along with a pack of unpaid college interns (who attend the University of North Alaska) jump ship after the crew is raided by pirates. The interns who leave only get incompletes for this "course."

Ned is a polite, innocent and childlike Southern gentleman whose mother has recently died. After meeting Steve at a film premiere, he takes a break from his job as an airline pilot in Kentucky to join the Zissou crew, and finances the new film with his inheritance when no one else will.

Steve is also followed around by a reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). She is a fan of his and is pregnant with her married boss's child. She eventually falls in love with Ned and, as a result, a rivalry develops between Ned and Steve, because Steve is himself infatuated with Jane.

The Belafonte crew sets off on one last mission. They have to deal with their own financial problems as well as a murderous attack from pirates. In their own subsequent sneak attack on the pirates they end up rescuing a "bond company stooge" (Bud Cort) who had been hired by Zissou's producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon). They also rescue Zissou's nemesis, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). Hennessey is the opposite of Zissou: successful, suave, rich, and "part-gay".

Zissou also reunites with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) who was once married to Hennessey. But while searching for the Jaguar Shark, the Zissou helicopter crashes, injuring Steve and killing Ned. Although Eleanor reveals that Zissou is actually sterile and therefore Ned could not have been his son, Steve and Ned had become as close as a real father and son.

Zissou finally tracks down the shark but decides not to kill it, both because of its beauty and his lack of dynamite. Viewing the shark finally validates a daily existence that Zissou himself had feared might have become meaningless. Eleanor is moved by this and falls in love with Steve all over again. The finished "film-within-a-film" is a hit, and Steve wins an award, regaining respect worldwide.

The newest member of the team shown at the end of the film is Klaus's nephew, Werner, a young Zissou fan who briefly appears at the beginning of the film and who seems to represent another surrogate son.



Critical reception was generally mixed, with a composite 52% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Bill Murray's performance was praised, and critics were predicting he'd be nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award.

Film references

  • The cross-section of the boat is an homage to the 1972 film Tout va bien, in which the same thing is done with a factory.
  • At one point Steve Zissou and Klaus Daimler are standing outside Jane Winslett-Richardson's cabin door. Steve says "Not this one, Klaus", a little homage to the character of Jules in the Truffaut film Jules et Jim. Jules and Jim have been happily sharing their girlfriends, but when Catherine comes onto the scene, Jules is smitten.
  • There is a scene from the documentary in which Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Cate Blanchett are arranged in a row and are pointing forward, looking straight ahead. This is a reference to an earlier Anderson film, Bottle Rocket, where characters Dignan, Anthony and Bob are arranged as such for the cover.
  • Both scenes involving aerial shots of character's feet (in the Hot Air Balloon as well as the shot before the helicopter crashes) are homages to Fellini's .
  • The scene during the credits, in which the characters walk along a pier, was inspired by the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. When the characters board the ship, there is a man wearing a pilot's uniform and smoking a pipe at the top most point of the ship, before the rest of the crew have boarded. This is Ned reappearing for a "curtain call" (per the director's commentary), similar to how a deceased character appears at the end of the Buckaroo Banzai credits.

Real-world references

  • The scene at the end of the movie with Steve walking the red carpet with Klaus's nephew on his shoulders was inspired by Francis Ford Coppola walking with daughter Sofia on his shoulders at the Cannes Film Festival in the late 1970s. The scene is the same down to the white knee socks and black shoes Sofia wore.
  • "Zissou" was the nickname of French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue's older brother. The portrait of Lord Mandrake, Zissou's mentor, is based on a famous photograph of Lartigue, and the photographer (who died in 1986) is even credited as playing the part in the end credits. Wes Anderson also referenced the photographer's work in Rushmore.
  • Although Anderson had made up the main character's unlikely name, it was eventually learned that there is a real Steve Zissou, a trial lawyer in New York. After being contacted by the film's production company, Zissou granted permission for his name to be used in the film, and he is listed in the film's credits.
  • The name of Zissou's research ship was the Belafonte. The name is a parody of Jacques-Yves Cousteau's ship The Calypso. Harry Belafonte is a famous singer of Calypso music. The actual ship used in shooting was the NRV Alliance, a NATO research vessel.


The soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou contains a style typical of other Wes Anderson films. Mark Mothersbaugh, a member of Devo, composed the score for the soundtrack as well as for many of Anderson's other films. The film also features many rock songs from the 1960s-1980s. Additionally, the film and soundtrack feature Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese on the acoustic guitar. Jorge, who also plays the character of Pelé dos Santos, performs some of these cover songs live, in character during the film.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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