The Wrath Aquatic: How Zissou Reflects Khan’s Kirk

the life aquatic group

I recently re-watched The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou in its entirety for the first time since its original release. This time around I found it a more entertaining, less wilfully obtuse experience, relaxed in its own world building and themes, weighty beneath the whimsy. There is quite a bit one could discuss about the film, covered very well in Matt Zoller Seitz’s entertaining video essay below. In particular, The Life Aquatic also has one of Bill Murray’s best performances as the eponymous marine explorer, one that curiously echoes Wrath Of Khan era Kirk in each man’s discoveries about themselves, the pricking of their pomposity, and their personal growth.

Like Admiral Kirk, Zissou is a once renowned explorer (and documentarian) who hasn’t had a hit mission in several years. They both feel washed up, redundant. The Belafonte, Zissou’s research vessel, is a former wartime minesweeper, surpassed on the seas by his rich, successful rival Hennessy’s latest high-tech model (Jeff Goldblum). Similarly, The Enterprise is reduced from Starfleet flagship to training vessel. Each man is confronted by a crisis of confidence, loss, and unexpected fatherhood. Zissou’s response to Ned Plimpton‘s (Owen Wilson) revelation that he may be his son by a long ago affair is to simultaneously hold him at arm’s length and to his bosom. Not quite bringing himself to let him call him dad (”Stevesy”), he meanwhile shamelessly takes the guileless Ned’s inheritance to fund a reckless mission to find and kill the “Jaguar Shark” that ate and killed his friend and collaborator, Esteban. Kirk’s initial response to Carol Marcus about their son David, a scientist like her, is weary :

There’s a man out there I haven’t seen in fifteen years who’s trying to kill me. You show me a son that’d be happy to help. My son… my life that could have been… and wasn’t. How do I feel? Old… worn out.”

When pirates hijack the Belafonte in unpatrolled waters and make off with the company bondsman who’s keeping tabs on Zissou’s expenditure, he launches a daring / farcical commando raid on a typhoon destroyed island hotel complex to get him (and Hennessey) back. Initially finding nothing, he stumbles and falls on his ass down the stairs. “Did you get that Vikram?” he enquires of the ever – present crew cameraman. “Good. We’ll give them the reality this time – a washed up old man with no friends, no distribution deal, life on the rocks, people laughin’ at him, feelin’ sorry for himself.”

Kirk also castigates himself for getting caught with his britches down after Khan’s ship catches The Enterprise napping. “Keep right on quoting regulations to me,“ he tells Saavik. (Incidentally, the Enterprise cadets and Belafonte interns get bloodily caught in the crossfire – hilariously, Zissou caps a pirate on his boat who dies while dropping a machete into captive Criminal Minds’ Matthew Gray Gubler’s shoulder. When the kid sticks around, Zissou gives him a full credit.)

When Zissou and assembled characters pile into the Jacqueline Deep Search vessel and are finally confronted by the Jaguar Shark, he doesn’t try to kill it. He’s accepted that death is part of the process, nothing personal. “I wonder if he remembers me?” he merely ponders, and, in a wonderful cathartic close-up, scored to Sigur Ros’s Starálfur, tears well in Steve’s eyes, his friends and shipmates patting him consolingly.

Kirk is devastated by Spock’s death – he never faced the “Kobayashi Maru” test, and must now accept that life (and death) can throw things at him beyond his control. His son David helps him to this realisation in his cabin – “You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”

Kirk: “Just words.”

David: “But good words! That’s where ideas begin. Maybe you should listen to them.”

As Kirk, Bones, and Carol ruminate on the bridge while they watch the new sunrise over the Genesis planet, Bones asks how he feels now. “Young. I feel young.

Steve waits outside the film gala screening of his finally completed documentary, award by his side, finally sitting shiva for Esteban. As the audience exits, he flips his joint away and hoists Kurt’s young nephew on his shoulders. He whispers “This is an adventure”, and walks at the head of the throng, sweeping behind him down the steps like the wake of a ship down to the sea, his mistress, his muse, award forgotten. The real glory in life is just surviving all the shit it can throw at you.

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