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The Life Aquatic might not be Wes Anderson’s best film. But it is his greatest.

The director’s misunderstood classic knows that sadness can’t be defeated, only lived with.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
That’s some beautiful framing, Wes.
Touchstone Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Wes Anderson has made more consistent films than The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. He’s made more obviously perfect ones. He’s probably made better ones.

But since I first saw Life Aquatic upon its release in 2004, I’ve been convinced he’s never made a greater one. Grand and messy and a little all over the place, The Life Aquatic wrestles with some of the most primal questions of existence and realizes the joy is not in finding answers, but in joining the fight.

Anderson’s fourth feature tends to get written off for not being as obviously, austerely perfect as, say, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums or 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. But that’s what makes the film so terrific. It understands that life has a way of puncturing your bubbles, no matter how well-constructed they are.

It was a valuable lesson for Anderson — long known for his fastidiously crafted frames and elaborate production design — to learn, and Life Aquatic (along with 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited) marks an important turning point for him. It has some of the rambunctious energy of his first three films (1996’s Bottle Rocket, 1998’s Rushmore, and Tenenbaums), but the maturity that’s marked his most recent films (2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, and Budapest) courses through it as well.

This is a film about one of the oldest ideas in the American movie canon, an idea Anderson has returned to often: the strained relationship between fathers and sons. But it finds its own territory within that well-trod country — and it gets there via stop-motion sharks.

The Life Aquatic is a slice-of-life movie with pirates and sharks

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Steve heads out to sea.
Touchstone Pictures

The best way to think of Life Aquatic (which is newly on Netflix) is as a “slice of life” film. Slice-of-life films drop you into a community of characters — a family, a small town, a group of friends — and then hang out with them for a period of time as something in their lives changes or they go through a rough patch. They don’t have obvious “stories” so much as suggestions of stories. Their pleasures come almost entirely from character exploration. Something like The Big Chill is a great slice-of-life film; recent Best Picture winner Moonlight stacks three on top of each other.

The Life Aquatic’s slice-of-life qualities are easy to miss because they’re hidden behind the film’s showy exterior. On the surface, this is a movie about a renowned documentarian and oceanographer (obviously inspired by Jacques Cousteau) whose best friend and filmmaking partner was just devoured by a shark. Vowing to kill the beast to avenge his friend and make his best movie yet, he sets sail.

Yet this dramatic setup ends up being almost entirely beside the point. Yeah, there are the standard trappings of an adventure at sea — including a run-in with pirates — but the overriding tone of the film is middle-age melancholy, which might be what you’d expect once you realize the documentarian is played by Bill Murray. Steve Zissou is young enough to still have time ahead of himself to realize his grand ambitions, but he’s old enough to have major regrets. The movie lives in that space. Even its most spritely sequences feel like they’re about to burst into tears.

This sort of tonal mishmash rarely makes for films that audiences embrace. But even critics — who were wondering if Anderson had a second gear beyond “beautifully designed quirk” — weren’t sure what to make of Life Aquatic when it came out in 2004. The film was written off as being confused, which is perhaps understandable: Though its setup suggests a quest narrative, the actual story is structured as a series of vignettes that really don’t have much to do with each other.

Even the closest thing the film has to a spine — Ned, Steve’s long-lost son (played by Owen Wilson), joins the mission to get closer to his dad — doesn’t proceed in anything like a straightforward fashion. The relationship between Ned and Steve doesn’t follow any sort of straight line. They bond, then become snippy with each other, then fight awkwardly over the same woman (Cate Blanchett, who makes the most of a too-small part). Their reconciliation is as messy and complicated as it might be in real life, which doesn’t naturally fit with a movie filled with pirates and sharks.

Perhaps Anderson’s predilection for beautiful design elements got in his way. The visual effects of Life Aquatic, which feature stop-motion undersea creatures, promise a movie more whimsical and winning than the movie that’s actually onscreen. And the Belafonte, Steve’s boat, is the kind of sweetly storybook space that Anderson’s films have always luxuriated in. (It’s not hard to imagine it as a forerunner to the much more elaborate Grand Budapest Hotel.)

But I would argue that what stood in the way of Life Aquatic’s appreciation is also what makes it a great film, one worth engaging with. To be perhaps too glib, it’s a sad white person movie — about a guy who has all the privilege and power and stuff he could want, yet still can’t find happiness. And in Anderson’s estimation, the only way out of that predicament is through it. To overcome one’s sadness means living inside of it, no matter how painful, until you’ve found a way to embrace it as a vital part of yourself.

The Life Aquatic isn’t just about fathers and sons. It’s about how meaningless it is to define yourself solely as either.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Steve and Ned try, fitfully, to bond.
Touchstone Pictures

Spoilers follow.

This becomes particularly true in the film’s final half-hour, which elevates it from a flawed but entertaining turning point in Anderson’s filmography to a terrific film.

As the film’s final passages begin, Steve and Ned head up to survey the ocean in a helicopter. Instead of it being a triumphant moment for father and son, however, it ends in a crash. Ned is killed, his blood slicking the water, and the film heads into uncharted emotional territory for Anderson (at least to that point).

The major theme of Anderson’s work is almost always trying to obtain meaning by constructing an alternate, hermetically sealed world. You can see this in Max’s plays in Rushmore, in the various Tenenbaums’ artistic pursuits, and even in the perfect beauty of the Grand Budapest Hotel itself. But the flip side of that theme is that these moments of perfection are few and far between — which feels like a lesson Anderson (known for those fussy screen pictures) keeps trying to teach himself.

It’s that tension between the longing for perfection and the awareness of its ephemerality that drives Anderson’s films — but none more so than Life Aquatic, where the protagonist is, like Anderson, a filmmaker.

If perfection is always ephemeral, always a fleeting moment, then film — which can theoretically capture it forever — is the best way we have of preserving it somehow. You might not capture exactly the way the light plays across the waves, or the smile on your lover’s face, or the shark that ate your friend as it looks back at you, but you might capture a facsimile of it, just enough to remember that moment in enough detail for the rest of your life, and then pass that feeling on to others.

The same goes for the relationship between Steve and Ned, which is similarly fleeting. Life Aquatic marks an uneasy transition for Anderson, as he moves from a director who seems more drawn to his movies’ sons to one more invested in his movies’ father figures. And yet he’s also caught by the notion that it’s impossible to fully define yourself as either.

Both Steve and Ned hope they’ll find meaning by having found each other. But it never works that way. They better understand themselves from exploring their relationship as father and son, but it’s also not an all-purpose panacea for the aimlessness both feel. In Anderson’s films, nothing — not a super-cool boat or discovering your long-lost dad or capturing a perfect, fleeting moment — brings long-term satisfaction or happiness.

But you have to keep trying, because that’s the point of being alive, to some degree. There’s value in the pursuit of the elusive, and as The Life Aquatic heads toward its gorgeous final moments (scored by Sigur Ros’s “Staralfur”), it captures, as well as Anderson ever has, that almost mystical feeling of connection that underlies tiny moments in all of our lives.

There’s something broken in this movie that never fully heals. But maybe it begins to knit itself together again.

The Life Aquatic is available to stream on Netflix.