The film stars Bill Murray as the eponymous Steve Zissou, an eccentric oceanographer who sets out to exact revenge on the "Jaguar shark" that ate his partner Esteban. Zissou is both a parody of and homage to French diving pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910–1997), to whom the film is dedicated. Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Seu Jorge, and Bud Cort are also featured in the film.
While oceanographer Steve Zissou is working on his latest documentary at sea, his best friend and chief diver, Esteban du Plantier, is eaten by a creature Zissou describes as a "Jaguar Shark". For his next project, Zissou is determined to document the shark's destruction.
The crew aboard Zissou's aging research vessel Belafonte includes his estranged wife Eleanor, chief strategist and financial backer; Pelé dos Santos, a safety expert and Brazilian guitarist who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese; and Klaus Daimler, the German first mate who views Zissou and Esteban as father figures. Minor crew members include Vikram Ray, cameraman; Bobby Ogata, frogman; Vladimir Wolodarsky, physicist and soundtrack composer; Renzo Pietro, sound man; and Anne-Marie Sakowitz, script girl. Also included is a recent group of unpaid interns from the University of North Alaska. The "Team Zissou" venture has hit a decline however; having not released a successful documentary in nine years.
Ned Plimpton is a longtime Zissou fan whose mother had recently died, and he believes that Zissou is his father. After they meet at Zissou's latest premiere, Ned takes leave from his job as an airline pilot in Kentucky to join his crew. As Oseary Drakoulias, Zissou's producer, can not find anyone to finance their latest documentary, Ned offers his inheritance. Eleanor feels her husband is taking advantage of Ned and leaves. A reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson, who is pregnant, comes to chronicle the voyage. Both Ned and Zissou are infatuated with Jane, and a rivalry develops between them. Klaus becomes envious of the attention Zissou pays to Ned.
On their mission to find the Jaguar shark, the Belafonte steals tracking equipment from a remote station owned by Alistair Hennessey, a more successful oceanographer and Zissou's nemesis. They then sail into unprotected waters and are attacked by Filipino pirates, who steal Ned's money and kidnap Bill Ubell, a "bond company stooge" assigned to the project. They are then rescued by Hennessey and towed to Port-au-Patois. Sakowitz, along with all but one of the interns, jump ship once they reach port. Zissou convinces Eleanor to rejoin the Belafonte, and then leads the crew on a rescue mission; they save Bill, along with Hennessey, who is also kidnapped by the pirates.
While Ned and Zissou make one last search for the shark in the ship's helicopter, the aircraft malfunctions and they crash. Ned dies from his injuries and is buried at sea. Prior to Ned's death, Eleanor revealed to Jane that Zissou is sterile, therefore Ned could not have been his son.
Zissou finally tracks down the shark in a submersible but he decides not to kill it, both because of its beauty and not having any more dynamite. At the premiere of the finished documentary (which is dedicated to Ned), Zissou receives a standing ovation while waiting outside the theater for the premiere to finish. The crew returns triumphantly to the ship the next day.Bill Murray as Steve Zissou
Owen Wilson as Edward "Ned" Plimpton/Kingsley Zissou
Cate Blanchett as Jane Winslett-Richardson
Anjelica Huston as Eleanor Zissou
Willem Dafoe as Klaus Daimler
Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey
Michael Gambon as Oseary Drakoulias
Bud Cort as Bill Ubell, "Bond Company Stooge"
Noah Taylor as Vladimir Wolodarsky
Seu Jorge as Pelé dos Santos
Robyn Cohen as Anne-Marie Sakowitz
Waris Ahluwalia as Vikram Ray
Niels Koizumi as Bobby Ogata
Pawel Wdowczak as Renzo Pietro
Matthew Gray Gubler as Nico, Intern #1
Antonio Monda as himself
Isabella Blow as Antonia Cook
Seymour Cassel as Esteban du Plantier
Though the characters were inspired by such American novels as The Great Gatsby and The Magnificent Ambersons, the plot has been compared to Moby-Dick.
Writing about the metaphorical aspects of the film's setting—somewhere in the Mediterranean—film critic Elena Past says that the underwater scenes, because they are central to the storyline, make The Life Aquatic similar in some ways to Respiro. Both films set out a "Mediterranean state of being" where "having left the security of land, the characters in both films are suddenly confronted with the precarious nature of human existence, as the films that depict them tackle the challenges of representing the submarine world."
The soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou contains a style typical of other Wes Anderson films. Mark Mothersbaugh, a member of Devo, composed the score, as he has for many of Anderson's other films. The film also features many rock songs from the 1960s-1980s, and several instrumental pieces composed by Sven Libaek for the underwater documentary television series Inner Space. Additionally, the film and soundtrack feature Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese on the acoustic guitar. Jorge, who also plays the character of Pelé dos Santos, performs some of these cover songs live, in character during the film, mostly with modified lyrics reflecting Jorge's own experiences working on the film. The ending scene depicting the beauty of the shark features the song "Starálfur" by Sigur Rós.
The Life Aquatic is Anderson's first film not to feature a Rolling Stones song.
The film grossed a total of $24,020,403 domestically after twelve weeks in release, less than half its $50 million production budget. It took in a further $10,788,000 internationally, bringing the total gross to $34,808,403.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has a 56% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 199 reviews, with an average rating of 6.1/10; the website's consensus states: "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is getting soaked by many critics, who call it smug, ironic and artificial. Still, others have praised the movie's sheer uniqueness, eccentricity and whimsy." The film has a 62/100 weighted average score on Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Anthony Lane, a film reviewer for The New Yorker, agreed with the conventional criticism of Anderson's deadpan style: that the underreaction of Anderson's characters used to be "hip" but has now become "frozen into a mannerism." He said that "some stretches of action" in the film are being "lightly held within quotation marks," with an "unmistakable air of playacting" in even the most violent scenes. He also criticized the film's deliberately "weird" set ups, which leave the viewer with "the impression of having nearly drowned in some secret and melancholy game."
Two home video formats of the film were released on DVD in May 10, 2005: a 1-disc version and a 2-disc version, both as part of the Criterion Collection. This is Anderson's third film to be released in the collection, after Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. The Criterion Blu-ray was released on 27 May 2014.