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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson's fourth feature-length film, released in the U.S.marker on December 25 2004. It was written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach and was filmed in and around Naplesmarker, Ponzamarker and the Italian Riviera.

The offbeat comedy stars Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, an eccentric oceanographer. In this ensemble cast, Steve Zissou 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.

It was released May 10 2005 on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection.


This movie details the adventures of once-famed oceanographer and documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). While working on his previous documentary, his best friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) was eaten by an animal Zissou describes as a "Jaguar shark". For his next project, Zissou is determined to document the destruction of the creature.

Zissou's crew aboard his research vessel Belafonte includes Pelé dos Santos (Seu Jorge), a safety expert and Brazilianmarker musician who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), a lovable Germanmarker second-in-command who views Zissou and Esteban as father figures and feels threatened by Zissou's possible 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; Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), crew experimentator and original score composer; Renzo Pietro (Pawel Wdowczak), screen editor; and Anne-Marie Sakowitz (Robyn Cohen), a usually topless script girl. Zissou's crew also include a pack of unpaid college interns from the (fictional) University of North Alaska.

Ned is a polite, innocent and childlike Southern gentleman whose mother has recently died. He believes that Zissou is his father and, after meeting Zissou at a film premiere, takes a break from his job as an airline pilot in Kentuckymarker to join the Zissou crew. As no one else will finance the latest documentary, Ned agrees to finance the new film with his inheritance.

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

On their mission to find the Jaguar Shark, the Belafonte crew has to deal with a murderous attack, kidnapping and theft by pirates. Sakowitz, along with the interns, jump ship after the pirate raid. The interns who leave only get incompletes for this "course."

The Belafonte crew launch their own subsequent sneak attack on the pirates in order to retrieve their money and rescue a "bond company stooge" (Bud Cort) who had been hired by Zissou's producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon). They also discover and 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.

While searching for the Jaguar Shark, the Belafonte's helicopter crashes, injuring Zissou and fatally injuring 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 an existence that Zissou himself had feared might have become meaningless. Eleanor is moved by this and falls in love with Zissou all over again.

The finished documentary "film-within-a-film" is a hit, and Zissou wins an award, regaining respect worldwide, though his losses haunt him even as he gains what once seemed lost.

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.

Literary inspiration

Though the characters were inspired by such American novels as The Great Gatsby and The Magnificent Ambersons, the plot has been compared to Moby Dick and resembles the films of Emanuele Crialese.

Writing about the metaphorical aspects of the film's setting—somewhere in the Mediterranean—film critic Elena Past says that the underwater scenes, because they are central to the storyline, make The Life Aquatic similar in some ways to Respiro. Both films set out a "Mediterranean state of being" where "having left the security of land, the characters in both films are suddenly confronted with the precarious nature of human existence, as the films that depict them tackle the challenges of representing the submarine world."



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

Anthony Lane, a film reviewer for The New Yorker, agreed with the usual criticism of Anderson's deadpan style: that the underreaction of Anderson's characters used to be "hip" but has now become "frozen into a mannerism". He said that "some stretches of action" in the film are being "lightly held within quotation marks", with an "unmistakable air of playacting" in even the most violent scenes. He also criticized the film's deliberately "weird" set ups, which leave the viewer with "the impression of having nearly drowned in some secret and melancholy game."

Film references

  • 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. The shot was also recreated using the three main characters in Anderson's film The Darjeeling Limited.
  • 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.
  • When Steve, Ned and Bill (the bond company stooge) are in the elevator leaving Oseary's office, Bill says "I'm also a human being" — possibly a quote from Victor Lazlo in Casablancamarker.
  • The last scene of the movie is a tribute to Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar

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 Festivalmarker 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 RV Calypso. Harry Belafonte is a famous singer of Calypso music.
  • Near the end of 2005, Mikhail Matz, a professor of marine biology at the University of Florida, witnessed and confirmed the florescence of the Chain Catshark making it very similar to the fictional "Jaguar Shark" of the movie.


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, and several vintage instrumental pieces by Australian soundtrack composer Sven Libaek. 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.


  1. Life Aquatic at Rotten Tomatoes
  2. Movie Reviews: 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'
  3. Carle, Chris. "Review: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou Original Soundtrack" May 4, 2005. Retrieved May 23, 2008

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