The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Brian Orndorf)

A formerly famous oceanographer fallen on hard times, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has hit rock bottom. Sensing revenge on a mysterious shark that took the life of his best friend will redeem his soul, Steve and Team Zissou hit the seas (on his ship, “The Belafonte”), with a reporter (Cate Blanchett) tagging along, a rival (Jeff Goldblum) around every corner, and a man named Ned (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be Steve’s long lost son.

“Life Aquatic” is writer/director Wes Anderson’s fourth film (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore”), and while it isn’t his absolute best, the picture is a potent reminder just how imaginative and striking an artist he is. What makes “Aquatic” stand out from the rest of his lovely, flawless filmography is the epic scale of the production. Working with his biggest budget to date, Anderson has become very ambitious with his ideas this time around, yet still working with his established idiosyncratic material, and scoring another exhilarating success along the way. With “Aquatic,” Anderson officially graduates to the status of classic filmmaker.

Anderson’s films have the potential to be polarizing, and “Aquatic” might be the perfect example of an either you-love-it-or-hate-it-it type of experience. “Aquatic” is vividly grounded in the aqua blue retro atmosphere of when Jacques Cousteau was in his prime. Anderson captures that low-tech, 16-millimeter, adventure-seeking mood brilliantly, fencing in a heightened reality right away so he can get away with some tricky drama later. The legendary Anderson attention to detail remains in full force for the picture, gorgeously photographed by Bob Yeoman, and featuring stunning art direction by Stefano Maria Ortolani, who recreates the interior of the Belafonte on a huge set, as if the boat were a gigantic ant farm that Team Zissou has burrowed into. “Aquatic” is a dazzling film, exquisite in every corner, and it captures the very essence of high seas adventure while still remaining an Andersonesque eccentric comedy. “Aquatic” is a masterpiece of poker faced tone and innovative visual design.

Narratively, “Aquatic” is built sturdily enough to weather some rough seas. His last film, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” managed to include a sequence of attempted suicide and didn’t completely derail, which demonstrated that Anderson could supervise some hefty tonal changes with grace. “Aquatic” is full of these changes, showing characters often bickering, and then loving again quickly, and in some cases flat-out dying, which might take some audiences off guard. But nothing seems to upset the film’s even flow, which is impressive and also relieving. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach spin this yarn in many peculiar ways, including marvelous sequences in which Team Zissou encounters a ship of heavily armed pirates, or Steve’s testy appearances at an Italian film festival that showcase his films. Even with all the strange tangents the film takes, the main journey of a weathered Steve chasing glory again is never too far out of reach to blur focus, and neither do the writers pass up any type of uproarious joke involving jealous German shipmate Klaus (a scene stealing Willem Dafoe).

Also worth noting is the spare, but vital score by Anderson regular Mark Mothersbaugh. Mimicking the thin beats of the Team Zissou composer, Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor), Mothersbaugh’s score soaks the “Life Aquatic” scenes with just the right documentary film thrust. Couple that with Anderson’s sense for legendary needle drops (the man has an astonishingly good ear) and this movie’s particular fetish for David Bowie, and here’s another sonically ideal movie from the filmmaker.

The performances are just as impressive. Anderson has this rare ability to make the absurd not so absurd, and his love for the characters is contagious. “Aquatic” features an ensemble cast (Anjelica Houston, Bud Cort, and Michael Gambon also appear), and they repeatedly resemble a group of young boys playing in the backyard around a pool, yet none of it looks silly, as much as some moments of the film can get. Bill Murray is the true emotional anchor for the story, and Anderson asks to see the rainbow inside him. We get the whole range of Murray here, including priceless Murray-perfect sarcasm toward the hapless interns on the Belafonte. I’d pay to see that alone.

Well it’s official: going to a Wes Anderson film has become a certified treat. “Life Aquatic” may not be as cuddly as his other productions, but it still resonates loudly with grace, joy and originality. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Rating: A+