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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) movie poster The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Theatrical Release: December 10, 2004 / Running Time: 119 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Wes Anderson / Writers: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach

Cast: Bill Murray (Steve Zissou), Owen Wilson (Ned Plimpton), Cate Blanchett (Jane Winslett-Richardson), Anjelica Huston (Eleanor Zissou), Willem Dafoe (Klaus Daimler), Jeff Goldblum (Alistair Hennessey), Michael Gambon (Oseary Drakoulias), Noah Taylor (Vladimir Wolodarsky), Bud Cort (Bill Ubell), Seu Jorge (Pelι dos Santos), Robyn Cohen (Anne-Marie Sakowitz), Waris Ahluwalia (Vikram Ray), Niels Koizumi (Bobby Ogata), Pawel Wdowczak (Renzo Pietro), Matthew Gray Gubler (Intern #1/Nico), Seymour Cassel (Esteban du Plantier), Antonio Monda (Festival Director), Isabella Blow (Antonia Cook), Noah Baumbach (Phillip)

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In 2004, things were looking up for Wes Anderson. Not much of the public took notice of the writer-director's feature debut, 1996's Bottle Rocket, but it was heralded by critics and by Martin Scorsese.
Anderson's second effort, Rushmore, found a bit more of an audience, some of whom were entertained enough to go discover Bottle Rocket. Anderson's third film was his best-received yet. It earned an Academy Award nomination for Original Screenplay, rave reviews, and over $50 million at the box office, an impressive haul for an offbeat R-rated indie.

Expectations were elevated for Anderson's next film. Like the two before it, Touchstone Pictures was rolling out The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in December, when the industry discourages stretching one's memory for compiling year-in-review lists and awards ballots. Life Aquatic's $50 million production budget was by far Anderson's biggest to date and more than the costs of the filmmaker's first three films combined. It still seemed like a pretty safe bet, given that the title character would be portrayed by Bill Murray, that beloved funnyman who had reinvented himself to strong notice and some awards in Anderson's two previous films. Life Aquatic also surrounded Murray with plenty of talent, including Anderson's friend and writing partner turned movie star Owen Wilson, the decorated Cate Blanchett, and such esteemed veterans as Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum.

Despite all that promise, the ocean adventure Anderson co-wrote with Noah Baumbach proved to be a tough sell to audiences and critics alike. Failing to recoup even half the budget from domestic theaters, the film's disappointments prompted Touchstone to sever ties with the acclaimed young filmmaker. To date, it remains Anderson's worst-reviewed film, its middling marks narrowly qualifying as "Rotten" on the most widely-referenced critical aggregate site. Its award season presence was almost non-existent.

Oceanographer/documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young man who may be his son in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."

The muted reaction to the film, which has faded as far as the public is concerned (it presently boasts a very respectable 7.3 user rating on IMDb), did seem to set back Anderson's career and dull some of its luster. With his budget and ambitions scaled down, Anderson next made The Darjeeling Limited, an India-set dramedy that floundered in limited release. His follow-up effort, reteaming with Baumbach to adapt Roald Dahl in Fantastic Mr. Fox, brought Anderson his best reviews to date, but even with a Thanksgiving Eve opening in over 2,000 theaters, the public did not care to see the director's signature quirk and detail applied to stop motion-animated anthropomorphic animals.

In the past few years, Anderson has miraculously rebounded from those commercial failures without compromising his style and vision. Moonrise Kingdom was one of the surprise hits of 2012, its domestic gross nearly tripling its modest budget on outstanding word-of-mouth and critical praise. That performance looked like a fluke until somehow The Grand Budapest Hotel flourished earlier this year, setting personal box office bests for Anderson both domestically and abroad to the tune of $154 million worldwide and still counting. The success of that film puzzles me not just because it's by far my least favorite of the director's work, but because it defies everything we know about commercial filmmaking, using an eclectic cast light on star power, an eccentric title, a period setting, international flavor, an R rating, and a versatile narrative that seems secondary to production design.

Oddly, many of the qualities on display in Grand Budapest, which stands as one of 2014's very best-reviewed films thus far, were ones that critics faulted in Life Aquatic.

British reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) is onboard to write a magazine cover story on Zissou and his crew.

We open at the Loquasto International Film Festival, a fictional event in Italy where Steve Zissou and his team of oceanographers are premiering their latest in a long line of sea documentaries. This one, designated a Part 1, finds Steve's closest and oldest colleague (Seymour Cassel) killed in the jaws of an enormous, previously unknown creature Steve names a jaguar shark. Team Zissou's next mission is to find and kill this elusive beast.

Joining the seasoned crew on this adventure are Ned Plimpton (Wilson), a polite Air Kentucky co-pilot who may be Steve's illegitimate son, and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Blanchett), a pregnant English reporter working on a magazine cover story. Tangentially involved in funding are Zissou's worldly producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), Steve's wife Eleanor (Huston), "the brains behind Team Zissou", and Alistair Hennessey (Goldblum), a rival ocean explorer who winds up unknowingly contributing resources.

With funding always in jeopardy -- Zissou reluctantly agrees to have a "bond company stooge" onboard at all times -- the mission begins as cameras roll and Jane takes notes.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew go deep down in the ocean in search of a jaguar shark.

Of Anderson's first eight films, Life Aquatic takes seventh place for me. It has some good moments and all the passion and craft you expect from the filmmaker, easily one of my favorite working today, but it's uneven and unsatisfying.
Anderson and Baumbach have spared no detail in creating this colorful universe of blues and yellows. Zissou's ship is populated with assorted personalities, like a man who's always playing David Bowie songs in Portuguese (Seu Jorge), Klaus (Dafoe), a sensitive cameraman who views Ned as a threat to his father-son-like relationship with Steve, an oft-topless script girl (Robyn Cohen), and interns whose names Steve can't bother to learn.

Steve is the biggest personality of all and one you might find difficult to love. Even those who grew up idolizing him, like Ned and Jane, can't help but notice the evident shortcomings of the heavy drinking, insensitive leader. The complex, off-putting protagonist seems to remain a puzzle for Murray, my all-time favorite actor and one whose dramatic gifts have been appreciated and well-served this century. Viewers will have even greater difficulty wrapping their heads around the character and warming to him.

But that's okay, because there's still a lot to like about this film, whose laid-back comic tone is quickly established. That tone shifts from time to time, as we see Anderson attempt things he never before has and possibly never again will, like explosions, a helicopter crash, and one wild pirate attack. That attack, in which Zissou, clad in a bathrobe and Speedo, fights back against his Filipino intruders to the sounds of Iggy & The Stooges' "Search and Destroy", undoubtedly numbers among the film's highlights. Another would be our introduction to Zissou's boat, the Belafonte, an achievement in set design and cinematography that takes us all around the rooms and levels of this vessel without a cut. Making it possible is the lack of a fourth wall, which lets us see all of these not full-sized compartments at once in a way that aligns with the storybook nature of Anderson's imagination. That scene is also aided by Mark Mothersbaugh's appealing, whimsical score, which assumes different sounds as demanded. The film's exaggerated reality extends to the invented species of fish and other creatures, brought to life via stop motion animation by Henry Selick, the director of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Like The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic was admitted into The Criterion Collection without any prior home video release. With the cooperation of Buena Vista Home Video, the film was released in single-disc and two-disc DVD editions, each given Criterion branding and spine number 300. (Interestingly, Anderson films have also claimed milestone spine numbers 450 and 700.) Virtually all of the two-disc edition's contents are retained on a single Blu-ray Disc issued by Criterion this week (oddly not in the studio's preferred Dual Format Edition), which marks the movie's debut on that high definition format.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: May 27, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Clear Keepcase
Still available as 2-Disc DVD ($14.99 SRP), 1-Disc DVD ($9.99 SRP; May 10, 2005)
and on Amazon Instant Video


You'd be forgiven for mistaking The Life Aquatic for a brand new film. That's certainly how it looks on Blu-ray. The warm, flawless 2.35:1 picture boasts vibrant colors and a pristine element. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track is marked by the peaks and valleys of original theatrical release. That's a design that Anderson often embraces and it's one you may or may not appreciate. The dialogue feels a little lean and tinny at times, but otherwise, the sound quality is very strong, bursting to life on the film's thought-out soundtrack selections from David Bowie and Seu Jorge's Portuguese covers of him to Devo and Sigur Rσs.

Wes Anderson and Bill Murray endure the challenges of water tank filming in "This Is an Adventure." Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) advises Ned (Owen Wilson) in the longest and most interesting deleted scene.


The Blu-ray's all-recycled extras slate begins with an audio commentary by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, recorded in Bar Pitti, a busy New York City restaurant in early 2005. They credit their influences (Fellini) and acknowledge their many contributors.
For some reason, the name of obvious inspiration Jacques Cousteau is bleeped, whether for legal reasons or their own self-amusement. This enjoyable listen has the two detail their collaboration (much of it taking place at Bar Pitti) and discuss their experiences from filming bits at Italy's Cinecittΰ to working with guns to casting a three-legged dog.

On the video side, where all is encoded in HD (though little of it seems shot to maximize that format, let alone the current 16:9 standard screen ratio), we start with "This Is an Adventure" (51:23), an artful making-of documentary from Albert Maysles (one of the brothers who made Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens), Antonio Ferrera, and Matthew Prinzing. It shows us the many considerations and challenges of this ambitious Italian production, from finding locations to testing out hairpieces and costumes to researching bruises to working with pyrotechnics and crazy eye contact lenses to directing actors underwater. It's long but rewarding.

Next up come nine short deleted scenes (4:33). Most of these are throwaway moments, adding little more than a discarded line, but a conversation between Ned and Eleanor generates some interest.

Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson discuss the film on "Mondo Monda", an Italian talk show. Seymour Cassel recalls working with John Cassavetes in the cast and crew interviews section.

"Mondo Monda" (16:25) has film critic Antonio Monda interview Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach in Italian, a language they don't speak while the interpreter in their ear fails them. It's an amusingly and intentionally awkward piece in the tradition of the Peter Bradley Show bits that accompany Royal Tenenbaums and Charlie Rose's underinformed Anderson interview on Rushmore.

Seven cast and crew interviews (36:23) gain insight from Cate Blanchett, Wes Anderson, producer Barry Mendel, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Bud Cort, Willem Dafoe, visual effects supervisor Jeremy Dawson, animator Henry Selick, fabricator Daren Rabinovitch, production designer Mark Friedberg, Jeff Goldblum, and Seymour Cassel. They're arranged by topic (characters, costumes, stop-motion animation, production design) and peppered with behind-the-scenes footage instead of staying with just one interview subject for extended periods.

While Mark Mothersbaugh discusses his Wes Anderson scores, Mothersbaugh's dog rests his head on a keyboard. Seu Jorge's Portuguese language covers of ten David Bowie songs are presented in full.

Former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh discusses his score (19:06), how it compares to his three previous ones for Anderson, some of its more interesting features (like its reversing of a Royal Tenenbaums composition), and sharing the soundtrack with songs.

We get the full in-character, on-set performances of Seu Jorge playing ten David Bowie songs on guitar and singing them in Portuguese: "Starman" (3:57), "Oh! You Pretty Things" (3:48), "Changes" (4:01), "Rebel Rebel" (3:14), "Lady Stardust" (3:51), "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" (4:12), "Five Years "(3:39), "Life on Mars?" (4:14), "Suffragette City" (3:22), and "Quicksand" (5:19). Those who view this motif as more than a gimmick should appreciate these long takes (most of which are not heard in the film), although they're sure to pose as something of an endurance challenge for those less enamored.

Matthew Gray Gubler's Intern Video Journal captures Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe getting silly during the shoot. Bill Murray points as Steve Zissou in a gallery image. Marketing art for "Island Cats!", found in the Designs gallery, shows Steve running in the wild.

"The Intern Journal" (15:22) gives us a look at the fall 2003 production from the green, grounded perspective of Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays Intern #1 in the film two years after being Anderson's unpaid intern at NYU. It's a candid and highly enjoyable piece.

A viewer-navigated gallery of photos presents 50 images taken by set photographer Philippe Antonello, offering another compelling angle of behind-the-scenes coverage.

A second gallery, titled Designs, serves up 15 images of artwork created for the film, representing everything from a crayon ponyfish model to Belafonte blueprints to Zissou movie lobby cards.

A more conventional making-of featurette is found in an episode of "Starz: On the Set." The appealing menus animate Eric Chase Anderson's charming illustrations.

The type of thing that might be all we'd get on a studio disc, the menu's "making-of featurette" listing is actually Life Aquatic's episode of Starz' "On the Set" (14:33). This promotional piece consists of trailer clips and standard EPK-type blend of talking heads and B-roll.

It's a nice digestible alternative to the more creative making-of material assembled here.

Finally, we get one Life Aquatic theatrical trailer (2:28), a promising and memorable preview that doesn't look as hot as it should.

One thing not easily found here is a 30-second Easter egg showing the documentarian Albert Maysles playing golf with Bill Murray. It's on the disc, but I could find no way of accessing it other than exploring on a BD-ROM. The same thing goes for Antonio Monda's 10-second Italian introduction to the DVD.

A few different menu scenes attach excerpts of Mothersbaugh score to animated renderings modeled after the Eric Chase Anderson cover art. As always, Criterion kindly authors the Blu-ray to both support bookmarks and resume playback, each feature of use here.

Like The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic endures a slight packaging downgrade in the leap to Blu-ray. It gets a plain clear keepcase, recycling Eric Chase Anderson's keepcase cover design (but without the more marketable slipcover). It's odd since Anderson's movies seem to lead to creative packaging as well as any title Criterion handles and the studio continues to get imaginative on occasion.

Inside, a booklet folds out to 8 pages. Originally lacking the distance for a proper essay, four of those pages again go to a 2005 Criterion interview of both Wes and Eric about Eric's illustrations for Wes' films. It's an enjoyable read that gains some history to the brothers' appreciation for simple drawings and maps and their collaborations on film.

Team Zissou scouts out the abandoned Ping Island hotel from which they hope to rescue their bond company stooge.


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is something of a happy mess. It's funny and flavorful enough to not greatly mind the loopy and erratic nature of the narrative. Having seen most of them multiple times and all within the past few years, I feel confident in calling this Wes Anderson's second weakest film to date, while pointing out that it'd be my favorite work from many a director. Problems and all, I still like the film enough to proudly own and revisit it; if your feelings toward the director's output are anything like mine, I suspect you'd share that view.

Criterion's long-awaited Blu-ray doesn't deliver any surprises, but by hanging on to all the substantial extras assembled for DVD and providing clear gains in picture and sound, it emerges as the film's definitive home video release and one belonging a spot in the collection of Blu-ray-loving Anderson fans.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Wes Anderson: Bottle Rocket • Rushmore • The Royal Tenenbaums • The Darjeeling Limited • Fantastic Mr. Fox
Written by Noah Baumbach: The Squid and the Whale • Frances Ha • Greenberg • Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
Bill Murray: Scrooged • Passion Play | Owen Wilson: Shanghai Noon & Shanghai Knights • How Do You Know
Cate Blanchett: Blue Jasmine • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button | Michael Gambon: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Willem Dafoe: Platoon • The Last Temptation of Christ | Anjelica Huston: The Grifters | Noah Taylor: Submarine
New: The Monuments Men • Her • Ace in the Hole • The Great Beauty • "Crocodile" Dundee & "Crocodile" Dundee II
At Sea: Captain Phillips • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea • Kon-Tiki • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea • Titanic
2004 on Blu-ray: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy • The Terminal • Spider-Man 2 • The Incredibles

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Reviewed May 29, 2014.

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