The Wes Dispatch #4: ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ (2004) and the Anti-Hero’s Journey

Stick on a British Invasion record, meticulously organise your possessions and grab a Courtesan au Chocolat from Mendel’s, The Wes Dispatch is Flip Screen’s tri-weekly column dedicated solely to the pastel-coloured world of Wes Anderson. Every three weeks we’ll be taking a deep dive into the Texan auteur’s weird and wonderful filmography to count down to the release of his tenth feature – The French Dispatch

“Wolodarsky, go get the keys to that fishing boat, and throw them in the water. No, wait. They might have another set. Just blow it up.”

As we all know, particularly in the world of entertainment, there is nothing new under the sun and we are effectively trapped in a never-ending cycle of one popular media trend becoming replaced by its polar opposite. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the ever-shifting balance between fictional heroes and anti-heroes in popular media. 

Of course, given the meteoric rise of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes since 2010, the first examples that spring to mind are superhero films, but the idea of having to either read or write any more analysis of Todd Phillip’s Joker is a particularly repellent prospect. So, instead, we will cast our minds back to the 2000s, try to get the frankly infectious ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley out of our heads, and consider the renaissance in US network TV. 

Clearly, series like The Sopranos and Lost revolutionised the entire TV industry by proving that a long-running and expanded narrative could be just as compelling as feature films and was therefore deserving of a much higher budget than was usually given. However, an often overlooked aspect of many of these series is how they fundamentally changed the boundaries surrounding characterisation of a series’ central character and demonstrated that they can become cult heroes by occupying a moral grey area – in effect spawning a new era of anti-heroes. 

Screen capture from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. A man (Bill Murray) stands in ship's cabin with an orca visible through the window in the background.
Image courtsey of Touchstone Pictures

One of the greatest examples of this is Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), the misanthropic medic from David Shore’s long-running medical drama House M.D. which ran from 2004-2012. At a time when the most popular medical TV series were the ensemble drama ER and the sitcom Scrubs, Shore created an unlikely blend of the two by combining drama with dark humour and fronting it with an objectively intensely dislikable character to make one of the most widely acclaimed TV series of all-time. The secret: giving the anti-hero character – regardless of their moral code – an emotional journey. The basis of which comes from the classic path of trauma to redemption. 

The reason House M.D. is effectively a masterclass in how to do this is that House’s character development is always defined by both physical and mental attributes. It is clear from the first episode that his hostile behaviour and apparent hatred of mankind comes from his chronic pain and his resulting addiction to opioid painkillers rather than a genuine lack of empathy. 

This theme of anti-heroism is also explored in a similar way in many of Wes Anderson’s film and much of his work provides a masterclass in how to write anti-heroes which remain both likeable and relatable characters – most clearly in his feature feature film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. 

Co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, the film focuses on the eponymous eccentric oceanographer (Bill Murray), who is loosely based on the real life French diver Jacques Cousteau, and his journey to hunt down the fictitious ‘jaguar shark’ that ate his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel). On his journey, Zissou is joined by the crew of his research vessel Belafonte which includes his estranged wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), his first mate Klaus (Willem Dafoe) and various other members of ‘Team Zissou’. Alongside his regular crew, he is also joined by lifelong fan and potential long-lost son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) and pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who plans to write an article about Zissou’s quest to track down the shark. 

Screen capture from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. A man wearing diving gear (Bill Murray) is interviewed by a reporter (Cate Blanchett) aboard a ship.
Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

Using this basic setup, the film primarily explores Zissou’s fading morality and descent into anti-heroism as a result of emotional trauma through grief. Although in itself, this seems like a fairly simplistic plot, as with many Anderson films – particularly The Royal Tenenbaums – the central theme of the film is redemption, which is achieved through a powerful emotional journey and slow, thoughtful character development.

Much like House, throughout the film Zissou’s personality and actions strike a particularly delicate balance between recklessly endearing and just plainly unscrupulous. Despite often seeming charming with his child-like sense of wonder for the aquatic world, under the surface Zissou possesses a near constant sense of professional and personal jealousy towards anyone he perceives to be more successful than him by any possible metric. 

The most prominent target of this jealousy on both levels is rival oceanographer and Eleanor’s ex-husband Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who Zissou describes as his “nemesis”. Even when he’s first introduced and tries to politely engage with Zissou by asking about his hunt for the jaguar shark, he is immediately met with hostility. Zissou even turns his frustrations to Eleanor by questioning how she could ever have been in love with him. He later steals a collection of radar equipment from his laboratory to help track down the shark, further demonstrating how his obsession has destroyed both his personal and professional boundaries.

Screen capture from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. A man (Bill Murray) and a woman (Cate Blanchett) sit at a table with a dictaphone on it aboard a boat.
Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

Alongside his jealousy, Zissou is also shown to take issue with anyone who disagrees with his own perception of himself. For example, he becomes increasingly agitated when challenged by Jane over why his films are receiving less attention and when Eleanor refuses to go along with his description of himself as an “adventurer”.

Both his jealousy and delusional self-image act together to demonstrate that Zissou’s inability to face up to the fact his popularity is waning and his films are becoming less successful is a part of the classic mid-life crisis trope which, when combined with the loss of his best friend, provides the ultimate explanation for why Zissou acts the way he does. Further to this, it makes it increasingly clear that his journey to kill the shark is more about trying to complete the ultimately futile quest of returning to his former personal and professional glory than trying to avenge his friend’s death. 

Screen capture from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Two men (Bill Murray and Owen Wilson) and a woman (Cate Blanchett) stood on a boat. The two men are pointing into the distance.
Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

However, despite seeming a noble quest in his own mind, it becomes increasingly apparent that Zissou is endangering both his relationships and the lives of his crew in pursuit of his goal. Much like in the latter series of House M.D., as the film progresses Zissou becomes a significantly less sympathetic character and it becomes clear that the use of grief as an excuse for his conduct is not being condoned. For House, his transformative experience comes at the end of the fifth season after he develops opioid-induced psychosis after a series of personal tragedies which results in him finally admitting he needs help and being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. For Zissou, his transformative experience comes about after a much more dramatic, albeit similarly tragic, event. 

During the film, Zissou and Ned’s relationship is particularly turbulent and often seems exploitative for the benefit of Zissou. This is most clear financially, as Ned personally funds the trip using the inheritance from his mother passing away. Alongside this financial benefit, there is also the personal ego boost that Zissou receives from Ned’s almost hero-like worship of him to the extent that, upon Zissou’s suggestion, he  briefly considers changing his name to Kingsley Zissou. Even after narrowly avoiding death in a freak diving accident and ending up in a physical fight with Zissou over Jane, Ned remains in awe of Zissou. 

Screen capture from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The cast of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou viewed through the window of a submarine.
Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

Although the relationship between the pair is clearly the emotional crux of the film and its breakdown is predictably the event which flips Zissou’s moral compass, to Anderson and Baumbach’s credit, the film’s third act is not as predictable as it initially seems. At first it appears that the redeeming event is Zissou’s decision to rescue Hennessy and Bill (Bud Cort) – the “bond company stooge” supervising the financial side of the expedition – from pirates. However, the true event is Zissou’s decision to continue hunting the shark via a poorly-maintained helicopter which eventually malfunctions and crashes, resulting in Ned’s death.

Although initially Ned’s death seems like a sombre note to end the film on, it provides the required background for Zissou to finally achieve his cathartic ending. Much like House giving up his addiction to painkillers, Zissou has to finally confront his obsession with the shark and fight his personal demons instead of engaging in a proxy war with a carnivorous aquatic animal. Therefore, when he finally comes face-to-face with his sworn enemy, and chooses to allow it to live, there is a particularly cathartic and emotionally resonant pay-off. Similarly to House, he has not chosen the easy option, but has finally chosen the worthwhile option. 

What both The Life Aquatic and House M.D. prove is that it is ultimately not the characterisation or actions of a character that determine how well liked they will become, but instead their emotional journey and how this influences them. Although writing an anti-hero is a challenge for even the best screenwriters, they make for some of the most compelling protagonists ever to grace the screen. In terms of the secret to achieving this though, the only advice is – as Ralph Waldo Emerson (and probably motivational Instagram photos of the Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit) say – “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”.

Featured image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.