Belfast Celluloid Sail: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The deeper you go, the weirder life gets

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou 

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 118 minutes

Director: Wes Anderson

Starring Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett

(Belfast Celluloid Sail Event, Abercorn Basin, 15/06/17)



With a plan to exact revenge on a mythical shark that killed his partner, oceanographer Steve Zissou rallies a crew that includes his estranged wife, a journalist, and a man who or may not be his son.

‘This is an adventure!’


As part of the Belfast Maritime Festival and the BFI ‘Britain on Film’ season, the magnificent tall ship Kaskelot served as a unique cinema screen for the viewing of the cult classic nautical movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Being a huge Bill Murray fan, Banterflix thought Who Were they Gonna Call (I’m sorry, I had to) to review this event and so courtesy of Film Hub NI, I excitedly made my way down to the Abercorn Basin to watch the screening unfold.

Upon arriving a little earlier than anticipated (an hour early, because I am ridiculous at judging travel times) I decided to have a look around the Kaskelot and learn a little about the ship’s history. Originally a 46.6m long Baltic Trader ship built in 1948, she went on to become a support vessel for fisheries in the Faroe Islands during the 1960s.

Learning about the ship’s impressive history made me even more excited about this special screening.

As I set up camp for the evening,  with my flask of tea I found myself surrounded by many fans of the movie donned in red beanie caps, nautical apparel and even one fan in full wetsuit, paddle board and goggles! With the sea breeze coming in, I didn’t envy him throughout the evening (although greatly admired his dedication).

Soon it was dark enough for the sails to be set and with the crowd clutching their wine and blankets the reel began……

I’m going to find it and I’m going to destroy it!

As mentioned, being a Bill Murray fan (Well, a Peter Venkman fan), I was quite surprised at having never seen this movie before considering it has been released for 13 years. Having received a cult following over the years, unfortunately it’s reviews on release were not so forgiving with many praising Anderson’s trademark quirkiness and exquisite visuals, but bemoaning the lack of comedy, further compounded by a lacklustre 56% Rotten Tomatoes score.

However, I decided to enter this movie with an open mind with my love for The Royal Tennebaums and Grand Budapest Hotel reminding me of Anderson’s fantastic humour and wit. By the end of the night, even with my frostbitten nose and fingers, I have to say many of these reviews seem quite harsh for such a dark comedy gem.

For those of you who have not seen the movie, it follows the journey of Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a once world renowned oceanographer who has fallen into hard times from witnessing the death of his best friend, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel) by the rare ‘jaguar shark’ during an underwater film shoot.

Upon vowing to kill the jaguar shark to avenge his friend, he scrambles together the dysfunctional Team Zissou – made of his disapproving estranged wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), his German deck-mate super-fan Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), unpaid interns from the University of Northern Alaska (in exchange for class credit of course), and the Brazilian David Bowie, to track the shark down (after an overnight drunk of course).

Together, they trudge their way across the sea to seek revenge by any means necessary (but mainly with dynamite), including through rather questionable acquisition of equipment from Zissou’s arch nemesis Alistair Hennessey’s laboratory (Jeff Goldblum).

Are you finding what you were looking for… out here with me? I hope so.

Unlike Anderson’s previous movies, the underlying melancholy usually present is right at the forefront with Zissou’s depression and jealousy of his potential son’s life evident, bringing a dark tinge to the usual whimsical comedy Anderson is famous for. This sets the tone for Zissou as his career dwindles, the lack of support of his once faithful crew grows, and the plummeting reviews of his work all impact his life.

This is all shown more through the breakdown of his marriage to Eleanor, the ex-wife of Alistair, the lack of connection with his maybe son despite his efforts, and the resistance to his lacklustre advances by Jane.

Combined with the technicolor feast of the underwater exploration, the comedic ‘action’ and ultimately surprising showdown with the mythical, yet oddly comical Jaguar shark, this film presents a wonderful vision of a quirky adventure with excellent twists keeping you oddly transfixed as the tale unfolds through deadpan humour, eccentric scenes of abduction by pirates and mutiny, to ultimately, a rather profound conclusion.

There is so much more I could say about the wonders of this underdog film however I do not want to give too much away to those who (like me) have not yet seen the movie (13 years is still no excuse for spoilers!). I feel many of the poor reviews for this movie were knee jerk reactions to the change in tone from the previously released The Royal Tenebaums where the dead-pan humour was not quite as expected and Bill’s usual arrogance as seen in Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters is not quite as forefront in his humour.

Bill plays the melancholy Zissou with an excellent flair of memorable one liners and adequate melancholy tone, with Ned’s almost childlike nature adding to their complicated dynamics in a heart string tugging manner. The crew and their antics provide whimsical comedy throughout as they follow the commands of Zissou before leading us to the grand finale in theatrical style.


Overall, I must say I’m quite smitten with this movie and completely understand it’s cult status amongst cinema lovers and it’s definitely one I would recommend. Having watched it at home again under a warm blanket with a large cup of tea to ensure the sea chill did not affect my judgement, it still held its charm as it did on the sail of the Kaskelot.


Written by Jessica Black.
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