Don't read beyond the cut if you haven't seen the film yet. I'ma discuss heavy plot points and spoilers.
First off, I forgot to mention the fact that the chopper crash scene is an amazing piece of work. More specifically, the agonizingly long, long, silent POV shot as the chopper heads into the scene. We're on the helicopter with Steve and Ned and it just takes SO GODDAMNED LONG to fall, and we're stuck on the shot just like Steve and Ned are stuck on the chopper, and there's no sound, everything has gone blank in our minds except for the fact that the chopper is about to hit the water and it's gonna hit soon and it's gonna hit now and it's gonna hit oh my god, this is what a real crash must feel like. There was no overly contrived drama, no musical sting, just a camera mounted on a chopper frame that was dropped from a great... height.
But that's not what I wanted to talk about. Wanted to talk about Esteban's death.
It's the catalyst for the entire goddamn movie. It is the event that sets everything off. It's our first piece of exposition. Zissou, on a dive with his closest friend Esteban, watches in horror as his friend is eaten by the mysterious leopard shark. (Or, as Zissou repeats several times during the course of the film, "That's what I think it was.")
Wes Anderson has many characters innocuously bring the validity of this story up, and each time it's handled very gently. "Why didn't you show him being eaten?" an audience member asks at the screening. IIRC, Zissou says he ran out of film. Several times he mentions he thinks it was a leopard shark what munched his chum.
Then I got to thinking -- ok, Steve's the only one who witnesses his friend's death. They're the only ones in the water at the time. The rest of the crew isn't there. Steve comes up, babbles the entire story of how Esteban just bought it, and then Klaus points out his "crazy eyes" due to nitrogen poisoning or whatever poisoning he has from coming up too quickly. He went loony for a moment. And there's no film of the actual event, even though Steve Zissou is a consummate inclusionist.
He sets off on an obsessive revenge mission to kill the shark that ate his friend, telling everybody within earshot of his plans for revenge, but when he eventually finds the shark, he just sits and watches it. Can't bring himself to attack it. (Just as well; the shark's ginormous. He would've needed a bigger sub.) But perhaps he can't kill it out of revenge, because it didn't kill his friend.
Because what if...
What if Steve, perhaps under the influence of the crazy eyes, perhaps in a bid to revive his flagging film series, stabs Esteban underwater, killing him and leaving his body for the shark? Then he sets up his new film with a revenge quest angle and hopes it'll be the turnaround point. We already know his entire life is lived as a documentary; he's shown constantly setting up shots and demanding something be re-shot when he feels necessary to do so. (When he saves Ned from drowning during the test dive, he's almost more worried about how much light the cameraman's getting than how Ned's doing.) He feels comfortable manipulating his life to fit his films and orchestrating Esteban's death this just takes that and inflates it to its obvious extreme.
Holy Fudd. Maybe it was supposed to happen that way.
I admit the first inkling of this hit me while I was watching the film on Saturday; I kept wondering why we kept getting hints about the story's validity, hints that would lead nowhere by the end. I got irked, thinking there'd be some conclusion to it, some kind of closure. I spent the entire first half of the film waiting for someone to call Steve on it, to ask him to tell how it really happened, but then we had a whole bunch of other complications, including the chopper crash, and by the time we got to the beautiful shark encounter scene, I grew happy and complacent and forgot about it. But perhaps this is the kind of conclusion I needed to draw myself. Perhaps Wes Anderson meant for us to figure it out in our own time, instead of having the movie do it for us.
If so, that's extremely clever and I am very amazed. Of course, I'll never know if that's the authoritative truth, so if that's not how it was supposed to have happened, well, it gave me something more to bang on my keyboard about, and I can go back to sleep. The melatonin's kicking in already anyway.