Total Internal Reflection is a big fan of the films of Wes Anderson. Whether it’s the European Gothic of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the quixotic romance of Moonrise Kingdom, or the chamber/hotel drama of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s work has established him as an original and highly distinctive voice in the world of cinema.
But for scientists, there’s one of his films that should stand out amongst all others – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. If ever a non-scientist wished to understand the vagaries and vicissitudes of the academic life, they could do a lot worse than sitting down to digest this film.
The story, an unhinged homage to the life and work of legendary oceanographer and marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau, features Bill Murray as the eponymous Zissou – a man with many flaws but nonetheless stubbornly driven to accomplish an all-consuming need (in this case, to kill the jaguar shark that consumed all of his friend). He’s cantankerous and curmudgeonly yet charismatic, and the dedicated band of oddballs that accompanies him on his madcap quest are a fitting complement to their ragtag master.
Seldom has a film so subtly but profoundly captured the nuances of the scientific world. What Wonder Boys is to English departments, The Life Aquatic is to biology ones. It’s entirely peopled by stereotypes of course, but stereotypes exist for a reason – they embody the truth, just in a far more simplistic and concentrated form than is ever going to be encountered in real life.
And what a gallery they are – a veritable roll-call of caricatures. There’s Zissou himself (Bill Murray), a kind of world-weary hippy who’s starting to feel disenchanted by the growing ruthlessness of a career he’s pursued all his life. His nemesis is Klaus Daimler (Jeff Goldblum), an ultra-professional, lucratively-funded, cynically focused careerist. Zissou’s wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) works in his group in a kind of lab manager role, balancing the books and keeping Steve’s depression in check.
The teams of Zissou and Daimler perfectly mirror their own characters. Zissou’s gang is a motley international crowd who are having a great time but don’t really seem to be doing anything; Daimler’s crew are an immaculate assembly of white-bread androids who are terrifyingly focused but lack any kind of spark.
Zissou is perpetually short of money, and his lack of funding is a theme running through the narrative (one that ultimately drives him to burglarise Daimler).
Almost every emotion encountered in the research life is here. The sorrow caused by the loss of a valued co-worker, the unexpected emergencies (pirates!), the bizarre and beautiful oddities (Anderson’s many sea creatures), and even a kind of transcendent conclusion when Zissou’s project reaches its apotheosis. Solutions are improvised. There’s fear and contempt on both sides of the funding divide. And ultimately, a grudging but sincere rapprochement between erstwhile competitors.
It’s life, Wes, and just as we know it.