The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson's fourth feature length film, released in the U.S. on December 25 2004. It was written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach and was filmed in and around Naples, Ponza and the Italian Riviera.
The offbeat comedy stars Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, an eccentric oceanographer. In this ensemble cast, Steve Zissou sets out to exact revenge on the "jaguar shark" that ate his partner Esteban. Murray's character is both a parody of and homage to Jacques-Yves Cousteau, to whom the film is dedicated.
Steve's crew aboard his research vessel Belafonte includes Pelé dos Santos (Seu Jorge), safety expert and Brazilian musician who sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), a lovable German second-in-command who views Steve and Esteban as father figures and feels threatened by Steve's presumed son, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson). Minor crew members include Vikram Ray (Waris Ahluwalia), a Sikh cameraman, described in Zissou's featured film documentary as a man "born on the Ganges"; Bobby Ogata (Niels Koizumi), Team Zissou's frogman who is usually seen eating (in the film he was seen eating a banana as Ned was diving and a sandwich in the sauna); Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), crew experimentator and original score composer; Renzo Pietro (Pamel Wdowczak), screen editor; and Anne-Marie Sakowitz (Robyn Cohen), a usually topless script girl. Sakowitz, along with a pack of unpaid college interns (who attend the University of North Alaska) jump ship after the crew is raided by pirates. The interns who leave only get incompletes for this "course."
Ned is a polite, innocent and childlike Southern gentleman whose mother has recently died. After meeting Steve at a film premiere, he takes a break from his job as an airline pilot in Kentucky to join the Zissou crew, and finances the new film with his inheritance when no one else will.
Steve is also followed around by a reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). She is a fan of his and is pregnant with her married boss's child. She eventually falls in love with Ned and, as a result, a rivalry develops between Ned and Steve, because Steve is himself infatuated with Jane.
The Belafonte crew sets off on one last mission. They have to deal with their own financial problems as well as a murderous attack from pirates. In their own subsequent sneak attack on the pirates they end up rescuing a "bond company stooge" (Bud Cort) who had been hired by Zissou's producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon). They also rescue Zissou's nemesis, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). Hennessey is the opposite of Zissou: successful, suave, rich, and "part-gay".
Zissou also reunites with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) who was once married to Hennessey. But while searching for the Jaguar Shark, the Zissou helicopter crashes, injuring Steve and killing Ned. Although Eleanor reveals that Zissou is actually sterile and therefore Ned could not have been his son, Steve and Ned had become as close as a real father and son.
Zissou finally tracks down the shark but decides not to kill it, both because of its beauty and his lack of dynamite. Viewing the shark finally validates a daily existence that Zissou himself had feared may have become meaningless. Eleanor is moved by this and falls in love with Steve all over again. The finished "film-within-a-film" is a hit, and Steve wins an award, regaining respect worldwide.
The newest member of the team shown at the end of the film is Klaus's nephew, Werner, a young Zissou fan who briefly appears at the beginning of the film and who seems to represent another surrogate son.
During the promotion of his next film, Anderson stated that while The Life Aquatic was the film the team set out to make, he had regrets about the filming process and the excessive money that had been spent due to its difficult production.