John Carter (2012)

John Carter (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: John Carter, the 2012 sci-fi/action blockbuster based on the first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal series of adventures about a former Civil War soldier who is mysteriously transported to Mars (known as “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), where he becomes a hero in the planet’s struggle against domination by an immortal race of super-beings. A lavish production from Disney Studios, it marks the first “live action” feature to be helmed by Andrew Stanton, the acclaimed director responsible for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, although the extensive use of CG technology blurs that definition somewhat; the studio’s certainty that the project was a sure-fire hit is evidenced by the fact that they spent a whopping $250 million dollars to make it. Unfortunately, with such a price tag, the film was required to gross near-record sums in order to simply break even; thanks to a lukewarm critical response and even less enthusiastic audience reception, it instead became one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, leading to recriminations and resignations within the studio and a massive financial loss on the quarterly report. It’s a shame, really, that the movie has now become known as a notorious bomb- an assessment that is not entirely accurate, for overseas returns were substantially better than in the U.S., and home video release ensures that, in the long term at least, it will ultimately recoup its losses and turn a decent profit- because John Carter is not at all a bad film, for what it is, and will likely prove, in time, to gain an appreciative following.

Adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon from Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, John Carter concerns a struggle for power between two Martian city-states- Helium, a peace-loving capitol of science, art, and learning, and Zodanga, the “walking city,” a warlike and totalitarian kingdom bent on absolute rule of the planet. The battle has raged for generations, but now, with the aid of a powerful new weapon that has been bestowed upon their leader, the ruthless Seb Than, by a mysterious alien race, the tide is turning in favor of the Zodangans. Meanwhile, on the planet Earth (where it is the late 19th Century), a former Confederate officer named John Carter searches for his fortune in the frontier of the American West; while fleeing an Apache war party, he inadvertently discovers a legendary cave of gold, in which mysterious carvings and glyphs seem to come from an ancient and forgotten civilization- and where an altercation with a mysterious robed figure results in Carter’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable transport to a vast, unfamiliar plain located (as he will later discover) on Mars. After adjusting to the effects of the differing gravity- which, due to his Earth-born bone density, gives him superhuman strength and the ability to leap hundreds of yards in single bound- he soon finds himself captured by a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned humanoids, called Tharks, led by a chieftain named Tars Tarkas. This is only the beginning of his adventure, however, as his fate brings him into the heart of the conflict over the destiny of the Red Planet, in which he must help the Princess of Helium to discover the source of Seb Than’s mysterious new power before she is forced to marry the Zodangan warlord and doom her people to eternal domination.

There’s not much point in offering a more detailed synopsis of John Carter’s convoluted plot than the one above; like the novel from which it is derived, it is a piece of melodramatic pulp fiction in which the story is merely an excuse for the action, romance and imaginative fantasy that keeps an audience coming back for more. Burroughs’ novel was originally published in serialized form of course, in All-Story magazine, beginning in 1912. It was by no means the first episodic science fiction story, but the way it combined elements of other popular genres- sword-and-sorcery adventure, westerns, romance- was a unique and ultimately influential feature that makes A Princess of Mars the direct forerunner of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, and Star Wars, to name only an obvious few. This particular sub-genre, known as “planetary romance,” has proven more enduringly successful than science fiction proper (in its strictest sense, that is), and continues to inventively manifest itself through, among other things, the vast wealth of comic book literature (and its related media) that has developed into an increasingly massive force in the entertainment industry. In other words, for anyone out there who is a fan of The Avengers, it all started here. With this in mind, it is only fitting that the saga of Burroughs’ planet-hopping hero should be given, at long last, the kind of lavish, top-shelf Hollywood treatment that has been afforded to so many of its offspring, and though many critics complained of the film’s sprawling, sometimes incoherent storyline and questioned its emphasis on action and spectacle over character and logic, these things are in fact part of the essence of this particular style of fiction; Burroughs was out to thrill his readers with imaginative and impossible scenes of otherworldly escapism, not to stimulate their higher cognitive functions. More accurately, perhaps, he was out to make money by doing it, and the fact that he succeeded- to the point of building an empire that pre-dated Walt Disney, Gene Roddenberry, or George Lucas by decades- is a fact made clear simply by looking up the origin history of Tarzana, California.

The world of a hundred years ago, however, was obviously a different one than we live in today; decades of technological advances- including probes and landing craft on Mars that have yet to discover the existence of mobile cities or multi-limbed green giants- have made us much less naive about the notion of interplanetary adventure, at least this close to home. Part of the commercial failure of John Carter must be ascribed to this; the premise of Burroughs’ story, though always far-fetched, of course, seems particularly dated in the 21st Century, with its swashbuckling warriors and princesses in distress evoking memories of our own antiquated fictional heritage rather than visions of otherworldly experience. Though such elements are present in more contemporary sagas like Star Wars, they are easier to swallow by virtue of a distance in time and place- not to mention a heightened sense of metaphor- which is carefully established from the outset. Not so with John Carter, which takes place in a recognizable part of our own history and asks us to believe in a conceit that feels old-fashioned and far too familiar to be taken seriously.

However, its familiarity is not due to its being derivative or formulaic, in the usual sense; rather, it results from the fact that a century of imitators has made Burroughs’ original seem old hat. Even those who have never read (or even heard of) A Princess of Mars and its sequels will know exactly what to expect in the story of John Carter, because they’ve seen it all before; and though the reason is that this, in fact, is the original blueprint for all those space-adventure-clichés, it makes little practical difference for those who are looking for something new and exciting to occupy two hours’ worth of their attention. This is, in essence, little removed from the cheesy space-opera serials of the ’30s, except by the feature-length format and the gargantuan budget which allows for breathtakingly realistic special effects instead of miniature spacecraft on wires; it is pure escapist nonsense, boy’s adventure at its most rambunctious, designed to stir excitement and elicit fantasies- and, hopefully, to sell the next installment. Except, thanks to the perceived failure of the undertaking, there is not likely to be a next installment.

As I said before, however, John Carter is not a bad movie; though it suffers somewhat from the need to pack too much story into a commercially viable running time, thereby eliminating the opportunity for anything more than perfunctory character development, and lacks the kind of mythological scope that gives such emotional resonance to the Star Wars films, it is nevertheless an obvious labor of love. Corny as it is, it has an infectiously earnest sensibility that makes it hard to dislike- at least, for those approaching it with reasonable expectations. It strikes well the difficult balance in tone that keeps it from becoming too campy- like the painful 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon, with which it shares numerous parallels- without taking itself too seriously. That’s the key to enjoying John Carter; remembering that it was never intended to be the kind of “important” sci-fi epic that has now become the standard of the genre, with serious undertones of sociopolitical allegory or philosophical subtext, allows us to simply surrender to its lightweight melodrama without faulting it for not being something it was never intended to be. This is not brainy, Asimovian science fiction designed to stimulate the intellect, but pure, testosterone-driven wish-fulfillment at its most adolescent.

Indeed, there is a lot to enjoy in this unapologetically overblown spectacle, once you accept it as it is. Burroughs’ Martian civilization is given the kind of intricately detailed, fully realized treatment that only big studio money can buy. The cities, with their spacious, retro-futuristic architecture, full of bridges and balustrades, palatial throne rooms, and majestic plazas, are executed with imaginative grandeur; the various alien technology, from great, bird-like airships to pseudo-scientifically-powered cosmic map rooms, as well as all the creatures- besides the Tarks, there are giant fanged apes, massive dinosaurian beasts that serve as mounts, and an oddly lovable amphibian-esque dog that becomes Carter’s loyal pet and protector- are brought to life by state-of-the art screen wizardry in a slick style that combines the iconic illustrative work of artists like Frank Frazetta with a modern-flavored Steampunk sensibility, resulting in a visual design that reimagines the classic Victorian milieu of the original with a firmly contemporary twist. These elements are imposed upon location settings in Utah- where, in fact, the author created his saga over a century ago- which are used to great effect in creating the arid, desolate Martian landscape, with its harsh deserts and monumental geography, making for an utterly convincing otherworldly environment. Of course, it’s no surprise that the film would be visually stunning, given the monumental budget and the participation of Disney’s all-star design and technical staff; as always with such effects-heavy blockbusters, the real test of quality lies in the less showy creative aspects of direction, writing, and acting.

As for the first of these, Andrew Stanton is a proven master of visual storytelling, and he uses his skills here to forge a clear path through the oft-confusing details of the plot, setting up early the crucial points and maintaining a strong through-line as he takes us through the meandering, episodic developments that make up the narrative. He keeps the pace quick with rapid edits and a roving camera, and composes his shots succinctly to convey a maximum of information without lengthy exposition. This is particularly helpful in keeping the audience on track, given the multiple storylines in play here- which brings us to the second foundational element of the film, its screenplay. It has already been mentioned that the novel’s sprawling narrative has been compressed too tightly into the relatively short running time of John Carter; the story might have been better served by being split over two movies, as has become the trend, for better or worse, with other big fantasy epics in recent years. Given the probable demise of this would-be franchise, it’s fortunate that Stanton and his co-writers did not choose that path, but if any one thing could have made John Carter a more satisfying film, it would have been the chance to invest more time in getting to know its characters. Pulpy as the material may be, a more in-depth exploration of the people that inhabit it- both human and non-human- might have gone a long way towards winning the emotional involvement of the audience in its action. Instead, we are presented with short, lightning-quick character sketches that give us the pertinent information about what makes each one tick, and then we’re off and running, knowing everything we need to know about them in order to understand their place- and easily predict their actions- in the story, long before it reaches its climax. As a result, the entire saga often feels as if it were a mere pageant, populated by one-dimensional ciphers who are mainly present to model the costumes and lend scale to the sets; since the story’s heart necessarily lies in its human element, such streamlined writing places a substantial burden on the director and cast to fill in the blanks and provide a greater depth of characterization than is apparent in the dialogue. Stanton, whose previous directorial outings have featured casts of animated characters (each of which are brought to life not only by actors, but a whole team of artists skilled in adding layers of nuance to every movement and expression), may have been at a loss here; his ensemble of performers seem to have been left to their own devices in filling out the inner lives of their roles.

Which leads us to that third crucial pillar of good filmmaking, the acting. The cast of John Carter is, if nothing else, a marvelous-looking bunch; Taylor Kitsch, in the title role, spends most of the film without his shirt, displaying the kind of chiseled body that was presumably much rarer in the 19th Century than it is today- after all, this was a time before the advent of personal trainers and nutritional supplements. Likewise, his co-star, the beautiful Lynn Collins, is costumed in a manner which strategically showcases her considerable physical assets, and most of the other human cast is similarly dressed- or rather, undressed- throughout. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; sex appeal is a big part of what makes these kinds of epic adventures so exciting to their target audience- the young teenager in all of us. In order to elevate these larger-than-life characters above the level of mere pin-ups, however, there must be something under the pretty exterior that will keep us interested, and though both the film’s stars make a noticeable and admirable effort, neither manages to give us much beyond the immediate requirements of any given moment. Their performances are all surface, convincing but never compelling, and though they carry themselves suitably enough for the stature of their roles, there is a decidedly contemporary flavor to their personae; they seem more like a pair of fitness models at a photo shoot than a hardened soldier and an enlightened princess. In the supporting roles, James Purefoy shows some charisma and character as a loyal second-tier hero and would-be sidekick to Carter, but his role is far too brief for him to make more than a fleeting impression; the gifted Ciarán Hinds, as the Princess’ father, is utterly wasted, as is Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as a cavalry officer who inadvertently becomes Carter’s companion for the discovery of the cave in which his destiny lies; and the film’s primary villains, Mark Strong and Dominic West, are saddled with two of the least interesting characters in the film- the former disaffected and aloof, the latter merely a mindless brute- and are therefore unable to make either into the kind of formidable antagonist needed in such a swashbuckling tale as this. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most engaging and memorable performances come from the actors lending their voices and movements (through motion capture technology) to the principal Thark characters (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church), who provide us with a hero, heroine, and villain, respectively, that we can truly care about. This may be because of the higher caliber of their acting (Dafoe, as Tars Tarkas, reportedly accepted the role because he relished the challenge of giving a performance dressed in pajamas while walking on stilts, and, arguably the film’s most prestigious star, he brings no dishonor to his reputation here), but it is surely not just coincidence that these roles are essentially animated characters- the kind with which director Stanton is clearly more within his comfort zone.

It’s interesting to know that John Carter probably holds the record for the longest development period in cinema history. It was 1931 when Bob Clampett- later to become known for his genius work with Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series- approached Edgar Rice Burroughs to purchase the rights to A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Barsoom novels; he planned to make an animated adaptation, knowing that a live action version would be impossible at the time, and he did manage to produce several reels of test footage before the studio (MGM) pulled the plug with fears that stories of an Earthman’s exploits on Mars would be too ridiculous for most American audiences. There were later efforts to produce a screen version throughout the next 80 years, but various creative conflicts and financial concerns sank the project, each time. Finally, when Disney considered the title (for the second time, having intended to produce it in the 1980s as a vehicle for Tom Cruise), Stanton- a fan of the books since childhood- fought hard to get it approved, with himself as the creative force behind it. Based on his previous track record, Disney okayed it- a decision they likely came to regret. By all reports, Stanton’s inexperience with live action production proved an obstacle which may have inflated the film’s already-massive budget, and his rejection of studio ideas about marketing and publicity might very well have been the deciding factor in making John Carter one of the biggest flops in Disney’s long history. There is a theory- which I more or less agree with- that the most significant reason for the movie’s failure was the decision to change the title (already altered from the book’s original name) from John Carter of Mars to John Carter. Stanton said he preferred this because the movie was an “origin story” that told how the character became John Carter of Mars, and studio executives reportedly changed it due to a study which showed that films with the word “Mars” had all suffered some degree of financial failure- including their own Mars Needs Moms. Whatever the reason, and whoever was responsible, it was ultimately this change, coupled with the vague and unexciting marketing campaign that accompanied the movie’s first release, that sealed the doom of Stanton’s lifelong dream project; though earlier generations may have needed no reminders about who John Carter was, in today’s market, where many have never even heard of his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, let along the hero himself, it was vital to give audiences more of a clue about what the film was about. Without such a clue, they stayed home and saved their money for the then-upcoming release of The Avengers.

It’s unfortunate that in writing about John Carter, I have to focus so much attention on its supposed financial failure (again, it was not really a flop, just not the mega-hit the studio had hoped for), but sadly, it is a significant part of the public’s perception about the movie, and it must be addressed; as years go by, its box-office receipts will become less and less important to commentators, and perhaps it can be discussed on the basis of quality alone. I hope so. Despite my quibbles about the script and the acting, I enjoyed John Carter, rather more than I had expected. Indeed, I tried very hard not to like it; but by about the halfway point I gave in to its goofy, old-fashioned charms, and by the end I was- dare I say it- glad the movie had been made. It deserved to be made. After a hundred years in which filmmakers have “pillaged” Burroughs’ stories for their own derivative efforts (the reason cited by director Robert Zemeckis when he turned down this project, specifically in reference to George Lucas and Star Wars), it’s fitting that the granddaddy of all those swashbuckling outer space fantasies should at last get the Hollywood treatment that has long avoided it. Fanatical followers of the novels (and they still are legion, even a hundred years later) may wish it had done better justice to the original, and many other audiences may wish it had made more of an effort to contemporize or sophisticate the material, but there are many, too, who will enjoy it just the way it is. Indeed, there are many who already have enjoyed it, myself included, and the seemingly passionate dislike the movie has generated from some (and some who have not even seen it, I might add) makes me once again question the value of judging a piece of art on the basis of personal expectation rather than on its actual merits; if we are too busy complaining about a movie’s not being what we want it to be, how can we enjoy it for what it actually is? Of course, there is also an unavoidable debate about the wisdom of spending enough to feed a small country for a decade on an inflated piece of escapist fluff like this one, but that is a question of ethical economics better left for discussion in another forum; in the long run, the fact that John Carter of Barsoom is at last represented in cinematic form, whether or not he is all he could have been, is a good thing, and though I have yet to discover if the movie proves more rewarding on multiple viewings (which I suspect it will), I am certainly looking forward to doing so.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401729/?licb=0.42602754768506235

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Daybreakers (2009)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Daybreakers, a 2009 sci-fi/horror/action mash-up about a dystopian near-future in which an epidemic has turned most of the world’s population into vampires, and the remaining humans are farmed for their blood.  Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, it is elevated above the usual standard of B-grade schlock by the presence of an unusually distinguished cast, and features a slick and well-executed visual style enhanced by special creature effects from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.  It was met with fairly positive critical response upon its initial release, but despite the presumably heightened appeal of its combined fantasy genres, its box office performance was somewhat disappointing, owing largely to its competition with the blockbusters Avatar and Sherlock Holmes.

Set in 2019, Daybreakers depicts a world not unlike our own, a place where high-tech convenience and corporate domination rule the day; the fact that most of its inhabitants are vampires makes little difference- modern technology ensures the uninterrupted flow of culture by providing protection from sunlight, and industrial farming procedures provide the required supply of human blood, while the military takes care of hunting down and capturing the few remaining mortal survivors.  The rewards of embracing vampirism- immortality, superhuman strength, enhanced senses- seemingly outweigh any troubling moral concerns, at least for most, and the only real problem is the dwindling supply of blood- an ongoing issue which has reached the level of an international crisis as the non-vampiric representatives of the human race have reached near-extinction.  While corporate experts race to find a synthetic substitution, rationing and poverty have begun to take their toll by causing the malnourished to “subside,” morphing them into primal, instinct-driven monsters who terrorize and feed on their own kind.  In the midst of this dire state of affairs, Edward- a blood expert whose ethical beliefs lead him to sympathize with humans- becomes involved with a group of mortal fugitives that have found a cure for vampirism, and he joins them in their quest to save humanity.  The powers that be, however, have no interest in a cure, so Edward and his new companions must fight to stay alive until they can find a way to spread their miraculous discovery and reclaim the future of the human race.

The premise is undeniably intriguing, though it clearly requires some serious suspension of disbelief for viewers beyond the age of, say, 14.  The metaphorical possibilities are provocative; Daybreakers could be viewed as an allegory for corporate greed and its ruthless bleeding of the underclasses, or as an indictment of humanity for its merciless over-exploitation of natural resources, or simply as a parable about the conflict between the dark and light sides of human nature.  Implicit as these ideas may be in the scenario, however, the Brothers Spierig have included little, if any, subtextual emphasis on anything beyond the necessary psychological conflicts of the story, such as the desire of a corporate chief executive to bring his resistant daughter into the vampiric fold or the struggle for reconciliation between Edward and his military brother, who converted him unwillingly to his undead state.  There are unavoidable parallels, too, between the vampiric “subsiders” and the homeless population of our own world- viewed as undesirables, they are feared and persecuted, a reminder of the larger social problem of which they are a symptom and of the potential fate which threatens the entire civilization.  Here too, the film’s creators have chosen to leave the obvious comparisons in the background, instead treating this element as just another complication in their plot.

With all this possible social commentary inherent in the material, one might expect the filmmakers to find creative ways to explore it within the framework of the narrative, particularly since their screenplay was an original work, unencumbered by the need to adhere to an existing storyline; but throughout their movie, opportunities for such resonance are ignored, and the script contents itself with a reliance on melodramatic confrontation and goofy one-liners, setting up its conflicts sufficiently to allow for dramatic tension and to provide the justification for its climactic bloodbath, but leaving larger and more significant questions unasked and unanswered.  In essence, the Spierigs have made an extended chase movie, spiced up with the trappings of a sci-fi/horror fantasy, and everything else within it exists merely to serve its crowd-pleasing purpose.

This is not to say that Daybreakers is without redeeming quality; indeed, its lack of pretension might be its saving grace, keeping it from becoming one of those preachy, self-important epics that gives lip service to a politically-correct stance while asking us to believe in a patently absurd premise (such as the movie that buried this one at the box office, the obscenely successful Avatar).  The Spierigs keep it simple, confining their socio-political observation to the world of the film, and incorporating only as much of it as is needed to set the stage for their story.  Unfortunately, that story is not a particularly compelling one- the protagonist is something of a wimp, and the developments which lead to the film’s resolution are even more far-fetched than its premise- but it manages to be entertaining enough; and because Daybreakers does not take itself too seriously, we can allow ourselves to enjoy the gratuitous violence and gore that we ultimately expect from any vampire movie.  There is quite a lot of it, actually, increasing in frequency and intensity as the plot progresses, until it culminates in a climax dripping with cathartic carnage.  On this level, at least, Daybreakers does not disappoint.

Besides the guilty pleasure of bodies being exploded, incinerated, beheaded and otherwise torn to bits- justifiable because they are, mostly, vampires, after all- there are some other features worth attention in Daybreakers.  Most noticeable, perhaps, is its cool, slick visualization of a not-too-distant future marked by a sterile, streamlined elegance in architecture and interior design, and rendered in a muted palette of steely grays and icy blues by cinematographer Ben Nott.  The vampiric mutants, debased by their malnutrition into anthropomorphic creatures (which look decidedly similar to the notorious “Bat Boy” of tabloid fame), are effectively creepy and pathetic at the same time, and well-executed by their aforementioned creators at Weta.  As for the acting, well, clearly nobody expects Oscar-caliber performances from a movie like Daybreakers, but that said, the presence of a particularly high-grade trio of actors in the key roles- Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill- helps to elevate it from the level of a run-of-the-mill formula thriller to something at least a little more engaging.  Dafoe in particular deserves credit, in his role as a former-vampire-turned-human savior, for being able to utter some truly ridiculous dialogue with enough conviction to make it seem believable; and there is a nicely subdued and grounded performance from the less-familiar Claudia Karvan as the mortal female refugee who brings Hawke (as Edward) into the cause and becomes a possible love interest.  It’s also notable that she takes an active and heroic role in the proceedings instead of being presented as the typical passive woman usually seen in such male-centric adventures- though she does, ultimately, have to be rescued, it’s also true that Hawke’s character does too, and more than once, at that.

Daybreakers makes an attractive package, with its skillful technical and visual elements providing considerable distraction, and the work of its competent players ensuring that we can stay involved in its plot; but that plot is all-too-familiar despite the painfully clever conceits in which it is framed, and though it manages to grow on you as it goes, in the end it offers nothing more than a mildly interesting 90-minutes-plus of entertaining fluff.  The rich potential of its scenario seems to beg for further development, but goes unexplored, creating half-formed thoughts and ideas about its implications that are quickly left in the wake of its action agenda; the result, though not exactly a bad movie, is not exactly a good one, either.  Rather, it’s just another gimmicky thriller that capitalizes on the surging craze for vampires, and though it’s a well-made and fairly likable one, the sense of missed opportunity makes it very disappointing, indeed.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433362/

 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s 2004 feature about a legendary oceanographer and his misadventurous quest for the giant “jaguar shark” that ate his partner.  Featuring a full array of Anderson’s trademark elements- and a cast which includes several members of his usual company of actors- it met with a mixed and bewildered response from critics, which probably played a large part in its failure at the box office, but received praise for the performance of its star, Bill Murray, and managed to earn a number of award nominations despite the lukewarm reception.  Though Anderson’s former writing partner, Owen Wilson, appears in a major role, this film marked the director’s first screenplay collaboration with fellow indie-filmmaker Noah Baumbach, a pairing which would later continue with the much more successful animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Drawing its obvious inspiration from the real-life career of famed marine adventurer and inventor Jacques Cousteau, the plot concerns itself with the personal and professional tribulations of the title character as he embarks upon a mission to exact revenge on the possibly non-existent fish that killed his long-time colleague.  His long career, once marked by the popularity and success of the documentary films he produced of his exploits, has fallen into decline, while his personal life is in similar disarray with the onset of a mid-life crisis and the collapse of his marriage.  When his expedition is joined by a young man who is possibly his son, rivalries are sparked among the crew and Zissou finds himself struggling with his own fear of emotional connection, as things become increasingly complicated by the presence of a pregnant reporter, an incursion of marauding pirates, and the interference of a rival oceanographer.  As Team Zissou journeys the seas in search of their elusive quarry, their leader must work out his personal issues as he scrambles to prevent the failure of the mission, which may be his last chance to save his faltering reputation.  True to Anderson’s form, the insular scenario provides a metaphoric framework for the emotional and psychological landscape of his characters, and as they negotiate the conflicts and obstacles of the plot, they are really working to resolve their own dysfunctional relationships with the world and themselves; and, as always, he draws on collective pop cultural memory to provide a distinctively quirky backdrop for his deadpan psychodrama.

In this case, that backdrop is designed to specifically evoke the juvenile imagination of the late-mid-century generation he represents, a world resembling a sort of mash-up between The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Jonny Quest; Zissou and his crew are not merely sea-going scientists and filmmakers, they serve as a sort of merry band of adventurers, facing intrigue and danger as they catalogue specimens, navigate unprotected waters, and weather the fickle opinions of the scientific community, film critics and their financial backers.  The sea life they encounter on their voyage is as fanciful and implausible as the names of the exotic places to which they travel, emphasizing even more the deliberate ridiculousness of the premise, and giving the whole film the air of a made-up adventure game played in the back yard after a Saturday morning cartoon marathon.  This pre-adolescent sensibility serves Anderson’s purpose in a two-fold way, suggesting thematic ideas that figure prominently in his tale.  It allows him to offer up a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the gap between the brave promise of the nuclear age and its failure to reach fruition in the reality of modern adult life.  Team Zissou’s adventurous voyage is a far cry from the optimistic visions portrayed in the treasured boyhood TV fantasies from which he has derived his inspiration; their highly-trained dolphin scouts are uncooperative and useless, they are saddled by their backers with a “bond company stooge,” and their space-age gadgetry has become broken-down equipment.  Though it’s a running source of humor throughout the movie, this pageant of ironic de-mystification carries a decided tone of sadness and disillusionment that undercuts the comical posturing and lends an unexpected poignancy to the proceedings; and appropriately so, for it informs the other major theme of the movie. The Life Aquatic is a film about boys who won’t- or can’t- grow up, a phenomenon which seems to center on issues of fatherhood; Zissou’s ambivalent feelings towards his own father figure are merely hinted at, but his failure to resolve them are evident in his self-indulgent life of adventure, in which he continually pursues the elusive, whether it be a mythic sea monster or an unattainable woman, while he proudly and flagrantly disregards authority- but simultaneously seeks approval from the establishment it represents.  His stunted emotional development is challenged by the arrival of another man-child, seeking his own validation from a father he never knew- a role Zissou is ill-prepared and unsuited for, but finds himself longing to fill.  Through their shared journey on and under the sea- with all its richly symbolic implications- they undergo a shared rite of passage to manhood, and in their belated transition to maturity they find the potential to transform their world of compromised hope and sold-out ideals back into the enlightened future promised by the bright dreams of the past.  Meanwhile, of course, the film’s few women wait, not always patiently, while the boys play at their adventure, hoping that the consequences of the game are not too dire, serving as mothers or lovers, or more accurately, both.

In presenting his male-centric delayed-coming-of-age tale, director Anderson utilizes all his now-familiar tricks of the trade: his meticulously tidy shot composition, his primary color palette (with an emphasis, this time, on yellow and blue), his visual influences drawn from a retro-hip nostalgic sensibility, his unapologetic use of obvious symbolism drawn from his own personal mythology, and, of course, his heavy use of vintage pop and folk music- here given a new twist by the inclusion of several Brazilian acoustic renditions of classic David Bowie tunes, most of them performed live onscreen by cast member Seu Jorge, adding to the film’s oddball blend of the exotic and the familiar.  Another Anderson trademark, his affinity for montage and whimsical graphic illustration for setting up key points, is here given a particularly spectacular expression through the use of a life-sized cross-section set to represent Zissou’s boat (named the Belafonte in yet another nod to Cousteau, whose own ship was famously called Calypso); this enormous visual aid allows the director to indulge his obsession for the methodical establishment of his characters’ world and the arrangement of their thematic place in the story.  For those scenes which take place off the boat, he chooses a variety of Mediterranean locations (beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman) that evoke the flavor of the classic French and Italian cinema that has helped to shape his personal filmic style, but which also create a visual impression of old-time glamour and sophistication that- in many cases- has grown weathered and gone to seed.

Anderson’s ensemble, for the most part, is made up of the actors he had in mind when he and Baumbach wrote the screenplay, a fortunate- and uncommon- occurrence which bears testimony to the director’s popularity with his cast and crew.  Most important, of course, is the central presence of the aforementioned Murray, whose dry demeanor embodies and defines the movie’s overall tone; always a surprisingly rich and subtle player, he uses his familiar screen persona to portray Zissou as a man who is good-natured, well-intentioned, and generous of spirit- but also infuriatingly self-absorbed and remote.  These qualities are not static, however, and much of the joy that can be derived from The Life Aquatic comes from watching this perennially underappreciated actor navigate the complex changes undergone by the title character, embracing the demands of the moment with the refreshing gung-ho gusto that has always made him so likable, no matter how smarmy or pompous his role may require him to be.  It’s a good thing for the movie that he has the ability to remain endearing, for Steve Zissou could easily have come across as a fatuous, manipulative phony; thanks to Murray’s self-deprecatingly buffoonish personality, we can see the charisma that underlies the character’s less pleasant qualities and believe that he is a man who inspires the loyalty and admiration of his misfit crew.

As for the unlikely assortment of oddballs that comprise that crew- as well as the sundry other characters that populate The Life Aquatic– they are brought to varying degrees of life by a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces.  The most prominent is Wilson, who portrays the young newcomer who may or may not be Zissou’s son; with his earnest, gee-whiz manner and his genteel southern drawl, he provides both a contrast and a foil for the more flamboyant Murray, and suggests a child-like naïveté that reinforces the movie’s boyish-fantasy theme- though at times he comes off as too good to be true, or worse, seems simple-minded rather than simple.  Anjelica Huston and Cate Blanchett, as Zissou’s estranged wife and the ambivalent journalist, respectively, are effective in their roles but are ultimately a bit wasted in the long run; Jeff Goldblum brings his usual oily eccentricity to the role of Zissou’s shamelessly self-congratulatory rival, Michael Gambon offers well-mannered class as a mask for the hidden shadiness of Zissou’s producer, and Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude, a film that clearly ranks high in the Wes Anderson pantheon of influences) gives a disarmingly human turn as the “bond company stooge.”  As for Zissou’s crew members and interns, most of them are established as distinct “types” to flesh out the background, but unfortunately most of them remain there throughout the film without making much of an individual impression; the exceptions are the previously-mentioned Jorge, whose musical interludes are a frequent (and welcome) distraction, and Willem Dafoe, who plays Klaus, the German first mate whose petulant jealousy is aroused by the favoritism his beloved captain bestows on interloper Wilson.  His emotionalism stands out from the rest of the crew, who seem nonplused and disaffected by even the most dramatic developments, but occasionally the performance feels a bit gimmicky, as if the actor were essaying a role in a comedy sketch instead of a major character in a serious feature film.  This, in fact, sums up the most problematic element of The Life Aquatic; like all of Anderson’s work, many of the film’s situational conceits are pointedly absurd, and much of the dialogue is self-consciously glib, underplayed with a heightened detachment that gives the whole piece a somewhat artificial feel.  Most of the time, it’s a technique that works, but there are times in the film when it gives the impression we are being put-on, creating a disingenuous air that threatens to undermine the sincerity of Anderson’s ultimate message.  However, it is not the fault of Dafoe, or any of the other talented players, all of whom deliver on-the-money performances that are true to the style, that it sometimes feels like we are watching an elaborate and extended skit; rather, it is a sense that Anderson, in this particular outing, may have laid it on just a little too thick.

That said, however, I should be quick to point out that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, though it may not be his best work, is a definitively Wes Anderson project, and as such, is full of more than enough delights to compensate for the occasional stylistic miscalculation.  Indeed, it has become apparent over his relatively short career that this young filmmaker is a true auteur, a visionary director with an distinct and powerful style which can, perhaps, be easily imitated or parodied but never quite duplicated; his growing body of work exhibits a rare wealth of imagination, coupled with a desire to explore his own foibles onscreen- foibles he happens to share with most of his generation, and that find a unique form of expression through his cinematic voice.  Coming at the mid-point of his career so far, and on the heels of his much-lauded The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou perhaps represents a crystallization of his milieu, a vehicle with which he defined his personal style in the most assertive form to date.  If it sometimes seems a little too much, maybe that’s appropriate; after all, Anderson’s films are not meant to be realism- they portray a world of archetypal dream mythology, re-invented with a hipster-ish vocabulary, perhaps, but no less profound for the twist.  No matter that it sometimes feels like play-acting; indeed, in a film about boys who would rather go adventuring than grow up, that might even be the point.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0362270/