By EW Staff
August 10, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Life Aquatic: Philippe Antonello

Wes Anderson, director of the geek-chic comedies ”Bottle Rocket,” ”Rushmore,” and ”The Royal Tenenbaums,” has never had an easy time boiling his movies down to a quick, simple pitch: ”What I do is sort of the opposite of that,” he deadpans. ”Unboiling.” When it comes to his latest film, he’s more adrift than ever. Basically, it’s the story of a Jacques Cousteau-esque oceanographer-filmmaker named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, in his tragicomic wheelhouse), who is struggling to finish his latest underwater-exploration documentary. Along for the ride are Owen Wilson, playing a pilot for Air Kentucky; Cate Blanchett, as a reporter working on a profile of Zissou; Anjelica Huston, as Zissou’s dissatisfied wife; Jeff Goldblum, as his pompous rival; and Willem Dafoe, as his loyal German crewmate, Klaus. So, yeah — it’s that kind of movie.

Shot mainly in Italy with a large international cast, ”Aquatic” is by far Anderson’s most complicated project to date. Among the many logistical challenges, he had to retrofit a World War II warship into Zissou’s research vessel, the Belafonte, and, with the help of animator Henry Selick (Tim Burton’s ”The Nightmare Before Christmas”), create an entire world of not-quite-real sea creatures, like the jaguar shark and the sugar crab. And, of course, he had to shoot on the ocean, which for a guy whose films have all been fairly small-scale, landlocked affairs was ”completely chaotic and wild.”

Dafoe says the adventure of making the film ultimately helped to feed the story. ”The first day, we had rough seas and I’d say about 99 percent of the people got really ill,” he says. ”But it’s a bonding experience, you know, to be puking with your costars over the side of a boat.” We’ll take his word for it.

WHAT’S AT STAKE Murray-philes think the actor’s due for an Oscar, but a quirky comedy may line him up more for a Golden Globe than a golden boy.