Thursday, 11 April 2013

Exploding Helicopter - The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Bill Murray is Steve Zissou, a puffed up Jacque Cousteau wannabe, who was once the toast of the movie world but whose star status is on the wane. His glamorous undersea adventures had transformed him into a public figure with cover stories and celebrity endorsements (Adidas no less). His “Team Zissou” membership rings were more sought after than Blue Peter badges (ask your Dad).

Fame is fickle and the shine then began to peal from his celebrity once his films lost their allure with an increasingly disinterested public. Now cutting a pitiful figure he scrounges around for funding and releases his kitschy documentaries to ever diminishing returns. His wife (Angelica Houston) is on the verge of leaving him and his successful nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) seems to pop up everywhere just to rub his nose in his decline.

To make matters worse, during the making of his latest documentary his best friend (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by the elusive, and perhaps even fictional, Jaguar Shark. This leads Zissou and his ragtag crew of oddballs on one last adventure to track down the mysterious creature, avenge his friend and perhaps offer them a chance at redemption.

Director Wes Anderson follows Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums with another bittersweet comedy/drama dealing with his usual preoccupations of age and strained family relationships albeit this time set on the high seas and coloured with his usual off kilter sensibilities.

The story’s gentle humour and trademark quirks won’t be to everyone’s tastes and the plot does kind of meander along but it’s rather like being on a rolling river in a foreign country looking at the strange flora and fauna passing by. You end up being pleasantly surprised by every quirk that emerges from around the bend.

One such curveball is the helicopter explosion that graces the finale. Zissou and his long lost “son” Ned (Owen Wilson) fly out to sea in search of the Jaguar Shark from the deck of their ship, the Belafonte, in a bright yellow sea chopper.

Due to Zissou’s funding problems it seems the helicopter has not been maintained in quite a while and as soon as it is at cruising altitude they hear a snap which Ned believes is the pin on the rotor mechanism. There are no histrionics or flashy pyrotechnics, just a shot of Zissou’s Adidas as the sea looms up from below them. The stricken chopper and its passengers are then on a one way journey to Wetsville.

Artistic merit

As to be expected from Wes Anderson the scene is chock full of imagination. Rather then the easier and obvious ways to destroy a helicopter, be that CGI or old school explosives, Anderson chooses to try the less is more approach.

As the chopper crash lands in the water instead of the normal fire/flame combo the explosion is depicted using an avant garde fast cut of bubbles fizzing and filling the screen spliced with flashes of red and a bizarre a flash back sequence of the Owen Wilson in a cinema auditorium.

Instead of the usual crash/bang of an explosion there is just a high pitched hum and some weird atmospherics. Once the chopper has “exploded” we cut to Murray, cradling a stricken Wilson as burning debris bob around them. Exploding helicopter purists may be aghast at this unconventional direction but I found it all rather refreshing.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Its not often we see choppers go down due to inadequate maintenance. Not sure the insurance company will pay out on this one.

Do passengers survive?

Tragically, and in contravention of Exploding Helicopter’s Second Law of filmmaking, one of the good guys gets killed. Ned drowns after a head injury overcomes him, after first making a few oblique indie references, in the arms of the helpless Zissou.

On top of fabulous performance by Murray and Goldblum this is an ensemble piece for which you would struggle to put together a better cast. Zissou’s crew of misfits includes a rare comic role for Willem Defoe as German engineer Klaus and Cate Blanchett as a National Geographic reporter imbedded within the team. Michael Gambon pops up as louche film producer and musician Seu Jorge appears as safety expert Pele dos Santos, who spends most of his time randomly playing samba versions of David Bowie songs on deck. It is completely bizarre but it works.

Mercifully this film is a CGI free zone with Anderson aiming for a hand made look with his emphasis on colour saturation and stop motion animation for the undersea elements. The whole thing feels like a pop-up movie made in kindergarten by skilled toddlers with film degrees.

I found it charming but could easily see why would not appeal to mainstream audience. You either buy into Anderson’s whimsy or you don’t. For those who didn’t enjoy it I’m sure another Adam Sandler movie will stink along in the near future which better satisfies your tastes.


When a movie shows this much charm and innovation it would be churlish to criticise it. So I won’t.

Favourite Quote:

Festival Director: (asking a question about the Jaguar Shark): That's an endangered species at most. What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?

Steve Zissou: Revenge.

Interesting Fact:

Most of the film was shot on the Italian Riviera where Bill Murray became a certified diver during the filming of the movie, logging over 40 diving hours between takes.

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