Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a legendary underwater explorer, notorious blow-hard, and known around the globe for his documentaries about life beneath the sea. But life is not going so smoothly for Zissou of late. Out of the blue (as in sky), comes a Kentucky co-pilot named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who claims he might, or might not, be the long-lost son Steve never got to know, after an affair with Ned's mother over 30 years earlier. So Zissou sets sail in a state of uncertainty and takes Ned with him, to make his latest film.
 

4.5
A film so dense, emotional and funny it'll make your head spin.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson's fourth feature and his most ambitious yet. You could even say it is his most 'Wes Anderson' movie so far, a film that aggressively pushes the envelope in terms of what defines his movies. Anderson is after all a fella who, like Woody Allen, has an entire genre attributed to him, made up of kooky, often maudlin characters (Max Fischer from Rushmore, Margot Tennenbaum from The Royal Tennenbaums), layer upon layer of intricate detail in plot and visual design, a superbly intricate, hand-made aesthetic, a heightened sense of the absurd, with a security blanket of family dysfunction thrown on top. So just when you think Anderson couldn't go any deeper into his unique oeuvre, he delivers The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a film so dense, emotional and funny it'll make your head spin.

In the 1970s Jacques Cousteau was a superhero to millions of kids around the world via his weekly seafaring action-adventure TV series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. One boy this wasn't lost on was Anderson. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is an out-and-out tribute to the late Frenchman, and a whole lot more. Anderson's regular muse, Bill Murray, plays seafaring action hero Steve Zissou, a fella modelled on real-life marine adventurer Jacques Cousteau. Resplendent in red woolly cap and with a crew of loyal, disparate souls at his disposal, we meet Mr. Zissou just as he sets out on a journey of revenge. His best friend has just been eaten by a wayward 'jaguar' shark (he thinks anyway), and to avenge his honour Steve must find the shark and do it in.

He declares to the press that this will be his most ambitious film project to date. In the eccentric style to which Wes Anderson fans have become accustomed, in absolute intricate detail, an extraordinary eighteen characters are introduced to us before we can barely draw a breath. They include his trusty, rag-tag crew of whom one is a crooning Brazilian rock star (he covers early Bowie songs in Portugese throughout the film in beautiful musical narration), his now ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), English journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who goes along for the ride, first mate Klaus Daimler (a very funny Willem Dafoe) and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson in a lovely understated role), an airline co-pilot who may or may not be Steve's illegitimate son. And then there's Steve's amazing sea vessel the Belafonte, a craft composed of staff quarters, leisure areas and oh yeah, a movie studio as well.

Recently a critic wrote about The Life Aquatic, "the chief problem [with the film] is that there is so much to admire and so little to adore." Certainly Anderson's over-attenuated embroidering of every detail can be a little overwhelming, but surely by the time you get to The Life Aquatic you'd have worked out whether his style would get in the way of liking his films or no. Because if you step back it is made abundantly clear that, while Anderson loves showing off in film, he has a bigger, more important agenda at work: to explore family dysfunction (specifically between fathers and their children), and the sadness that goes with it. It might be understated but this is the theme he digs well-deep into by the end of his films. Often they look like they are about to tip over, over-loaded with too much detail and tomfoolery. But just when you think things can't be stretched any more, he pulls back and allows the story and characters to breath. And that's just what happens in The Life Aquatic.

In no uncertain terms we learn Murray's Zissou is not a nice man. He has made many mistakes, he's hard to work with, an egoist, a bully, belligerent and an emotionally absent husband and physically absent dad. (Of course Murray relishes the role ' these fraught, sharp-edged characters are his speciality). But he redeems himself and becomes the hero we all know he has inside of him, especially in relation to his son. (Their 'denouement' is especially moving). And the eventual action-adventure pay-off 'in all its frayed edged glory' is such a hoot. There's way too much to talk about in The Life Aquatic to do it justice here.

The music selection is inspired, there's animation on offer (by monkeybone's Henry Selick no less), an alien undersea world fashioned straight from the imagination, epic sets and intimate moments between superbly-drawn characters. No wonder actors love working with Anderson, they are asked to look inwards and come up with fabulously truthful performances, which all eighteen of them do, no matter how big or small the role.

Anderson's films are like a tour through arthouse film and universal fairytales. But they have their own unique voice to which an entire generation of people, corn-fed on all sorts of media, respond in spades. Suffice to say, fans of Wes Anderson will die for The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. His detractors will hate it. And anyone who loves watching a wonderful young artist stretch the boundaries of film, yet uphold the best aspects of storytelling, should give it a go.