Every director is allowed a lull here or there when a couple of their films feel more like blips on the resume compared to the rest of their work. For Wes Anderson, it happened to be back-to-back. After the phenomenal success of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and in some ways even more so, The Darjeeling Limited, found Anderson in a bit of a slump. Were it not for the casting of Bill Murray as Zissou, the film could have been even more of a letdown. It also helps that Murray is surrounded by the usual suspects of Anderson players to keep the whole enterprise afloat.
Oceanographer Zissou has just premiered his latest documentary where his best friend Esteband du Plantier (Seymour Cassell) gets eaten by what Zissou proclaims to be a jaguar shark. Vowing revenge, Zissou acquires funding from Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon), but finds what he needs in his could-be son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson). Aboard Zissou’s research vessel “Belafonte,” the rest of the crew follow Zissou on his search for the shark that took his friend’s life. Along the way, they encounter pirates, mutiny, and pregnant reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), as they sail off into the wild blue yonder on Zissou’s quest.
Coming from Criterion, it’s no surprise to find that the picture quality is spectacular. Even though it was released in 2004, The Life Aquatic doesn’t look more than a day old. Placed on a 50GB disc it’s framed in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors are almost over-saturated in every scene but never begin to bloom or bleed — the red of the crew’s caps are the biggest example. Detail is impeccable with only some inherited softer shots that are few and far between. Whether it’s the aforementioned crew caps, Angelica Huston’s blue streaks in her hair, suit lapels, Team Zissou gear, or Murray’s scraggly beard, every fine detail is outstanding.
A nice layer of grain permeates throughout keeping the filmic nature natural. I did notice one white speck pop up in a darkened hallway at the 26-minute mark and a few night sequences are darker than others, but for the most part, shadow detail is fantastic. This also may be the most contrast boosted of Anderson’s films, but not even facial detail gets overwhelmed. The only audio track is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with English subtitles. While most of the film is rather front heavy — which is fitting considering the confined spaces most of the film takes place in — the music provides plenty of ambiance. Dialogue is always clean and clear, helping make even the most mumbled Murray line hilariously intelligible.
When it comes to Criterion, no one packs more special features into a release. An audio commentary kicks things off. Recorded in February 2005 by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach, the two reminisce about the production at the same tavern where they wrote the film. Full of background noise, this would be one of the more annoying commentary tracks if it hadn’t been done by Anderson. There are two behind the scenes documentaries: “This Is an Adventure” (51:23), from Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera, and Matthew Prinzig. Filmed during the 2003 production, it starts to feel very long in the tooth, but it is always fun to watch the cast goof around on set. The second is an “Intern Video Journal” (15:22) shot by Matthew Gray Gubler who also played Intern #1 in the film. This one is more entertaining and shows Gubler’s own mishaps during the filming including bad perms, emergency room visits, and having the time of this life. A third “Making-of-Featurette” (14:33) is an old “Starz on the Set,” here we learn that Anderson has actually been planning this film for 14 years.
A collection of “Deleted Scenes” are short and sweet, including: “Eleanor’s Writing Shed” (:58), “Albino Dolphin Cost Breakdown” (:23), “Additional Mutiny Scene” (:19), “Hydronieus Inverticus (Rat-Tail Envelope Fish)” (:21), “Let’s Just Keep It in the Moment” (:33), “Swamp Leeches” (:21), “You Lose Track of Time” (:24), “Klaus on Fire” (:15), and “Mai Tais/Blue Hawaiians” (:59). “Cast and Crew Interviews” is more in-depth and includes: June (3:29), Ned (2:57), Costumes (4:37), Aquatic Life (7:55), The Look Aquatic (5:30), Creating a Scene (4:42), and Esteban (7:10). The best part is the Aquatic Life feature showcasing Henry Selick’s stop-motion creature effects.
“Mondo Monda” (16:25) features Anderson and Baumbach on Antonio Monda’s Italian talkshow featuring hilarious language barrier issues and technical difficulties. “Mark Mothersbaugh” (19:06) is an interview with the film’s composer from 2004. It’s interesting to hear him talk about how he started writing the score while the film was being written and hear him reminisce about recording films onto 90 minute cassette tapes — something I also did a few times growing up in the ’80s. “Photos” is a collection from set photographer Philippe Antonello during the production. “Designs” consists of various drawings, sketches, and original art pieces used within the film and to create the film’s unique world.
“Seu Jorge Performs David Bowie” includes full versions of the film’s solo Greek chorus performing: “Starman” (3:57), “Oh! You Pretty Thing” (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). And finally, the film’s theatrical trailer (2:28) and a leaflet insert featuring an interview with Anderson and his brother Eric, rounds things out.
The Life Aquatic may not reach the heights of Anderson’s best work, but even “good” Anderson is still better than most comedies these days. Filled with just as many eccentric and quirky characters and misadventures as you’d expect from any Anderson outing, Criterion has delivered another spectacular Blu-ray to add to the rest of the collection. If only Criterion would give Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel the same treatment; I’m personally holding out as it seems inevitable. Featuring the standard excellent audio/video presentation, and stuffed to the gills with special features, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a highly recommended Blu-ray release.
Cover art and photos courtesy Criterion and Touchstone Pictures[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00IGK6TLA][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B003KGBIS4][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00GRA7KBY][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00JAQJNN0][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B007L6VR6M][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B0083V2W4U][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B005HK13SG][amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B001EOQCL2]