It’s not just the outer-dimensional soundtrack comprised mostly of early David Bowie (sung in Portuguese) and the climatic use of the Stooges’ Search and Destroy that makes The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou such an interesting movie. Like other Wes Anderson flicks, it goes beyond formulaic classification. Bill Murray could have been cast from a plastic action figure mold to play Steve Zissou, an aging, self-absorbed documentary sea adventurer at odds with his past. To say his character longs for the success of his youth, I think, gives his past a little too much credit, though. It does seem that the “credibility” Steve Zissou once achieved among academic circles could never really have been based on anything genuine, which gives this trip down entropy lane almost twice the irony.
But that doesn’t answer what this film is about. To really look at the film deeply, I think the answer swims with the little fish and sea creatures that make an appearance every 15 or so minutes. Using computer generated images, Anderson intentionally paints them with oversaturated colors and exaggerated movements, giving them a “hypereal” movie existence. By no coincidence, I think, hyperreality is also a theme that defines the main character’s inner struggle—almost as if he were contemplating Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation during a mid-life crisis. Consider this:
It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.
Got that? I only got a little. Which brings me to why this movie isn’t drop on the floor funny. It couldn’t be. The element of parody is kept largely at bay. While it’s not a film strictly for academia, it’s also not for the masses either. Honestly, I wonder how the studio execs agreed to have it made. But it is unique and it is entertaining in its purposely quirky way. The story does not have a traditional arch and little is resolved towards the end, but the characters, like in all of Anderson’s films, reveal something in them that no other movie made in Hollywood can. They come alive through cultural signs and simulation. They may be deadpan funny, but they’re far from dead.