In Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, Bill Murray’s character, Steve Zissou, is a Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer/filmmaker who documents his implausible encounters with bizarre aquatic wildlife. Accompanied by Owen Wilson’s character, Ned, who may or may not be his son, Zissou attempts to compensate for his middle age, failing career, and ruined marriage by searching the seven seas for the creature that ate his best friend, Esteban. The film is an intertextual web of references to other films, and while it may be easy to get entangled in a single thread of logic that leads off to other Anderson films or even as far as Fellini, The Life Aquatic is most of all a film in search of origins, and as such, it recursively circles around the frontiers of filmmaking itself.
The illusory wildlife that Zissou chases with a camera ornaments the fantastical underwater dreamscape into which we follow him on his search. This surreal topography becomes the backdrop for the film and the locus in quo of the search for the leopard shark. Visually inflected with human flair, as though it were a child’s imagined ocean rather than the actual ocean, the composition of the underwater scenes in this film evoke a certain aesthetic of the sort you might expect to find on a ride at Disney Land, namely, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Perhaps there’s no need to point out that the ocean here is a rather heavy-handed symbol for the unconscious; a fantastical landscape that is at once the ocean and something else, something unfamiliar, vast, and other.
The name of Zissou’s “Nautilus” is “Deep Search,” which is written on the side of the submersible as well as tattooed on Zissou’s arm. In both places, there’s also a crossed out “Kathleen,” just above the words “Deep Search.” Earlier in the film, Ned asks, “who was Kathleen?” to which Zissou responds “Oh, she never really loved me.” Kathleen was Zissou’s first wife and we can infer that the reason for the failure of their marriage was most likely his infertility. We learn in a later scene from Zissou’s current wife that Zissou “shoot’s blanks.” In one of the final scenes of the film, all of the characters are packed into Zissou’s tiny submersible in search of the leopard shark. Here, we see all of the themes of the film neatly stitched together in the search for the creature that killed Esteban. This scene folds into all of the conflicts of the film, resolving them in the dramatic final encounter with the leopard shark. Symbolically, it is hard not to notice that this scene depicts insemination. The fluorescent snapper that dart over the submersible swim with the speed and erratic movements of sperm under a microscope, the sought after leopard shark at the end of the search coincides with the image of the nestled egg or embryo, and the dialogue of the characters when they first see the shark make reference to Zissou’s infertility, the pregnant journalist, and youth. Upon seeing the shark, Klaus asks, “Are we going to blow it up?” to which Zisou replies, “We’re out of dynamite.” This response being a clear reference to Zisou’s infertility, or the fact that he “shoots blanks.” Next, the pregnant journalist says: “in twelve years he’ll be 11 and a half.” With his hand on her stomach, Zisou replies, that was my favorite age. As such, this scene interrogates the theme of origins. However, Zisou is infertile, and so the image of the shark has a further implication: being a symbol of that which Zisou is incapable. It was the shark that devoured his best friend Esteban, who is associated with Zisou’s youth and success as an oceanographer. If we accept that the shark represents insemination, that which Zisou is not capable, and that Esteban represents the better years of his life, than it was his infertility that devoured the prospects of his youthful success by ruining his first marriage and launching his “deep search.”
The title of the film also ties into the insemination scene. Given Anderson’s penchant for puns and triple meanings in the titles of his films, for instance the Royal Tenenbaums being at once a reference to Christmas, royalty, the main character’s name and the family’s last name, the The Life Aquatic similary points in more directions than the obvious reference to oceanography. Provided the theme of origins in the film, and particularly the theme of procreation, there’s ample evidence to suggest that The Life Aquatic would refer to the life in utero.
Among the themes of youth, birth, and insemination, The Life Aquatic also interrogates film. The first and last scenes of The Life Aquatic take place at a European film festival, and Zissou’s ship is more of a movie set than it is a laboratory. This self-reflexive turn, a film about a filmmaker, might call to mind Fellini’s film 8½, but in both films the genius of such a recursive filmic structure is that it constitutes a rupture, by becoming an interrogation of itself. Through a convoluted semiotics of illusory wildlife, movie sets on movie sets in a film about film, we follow Zissou and Anderson in their dizzying search for the “leopard shark,” the fantastic creature that ultimately assumes the untenable position of a symbol of that which has come before (youth, Esteban, success, etc.) and that which has not yet arrived (birth, youth, success, etc.).