"Where? How about in virtually the whole movie," I said.
"Really? I wonder if it was intentional."
"Oh yeah," I said, "One can't use that much symmetry in a movie without it being intentional."
When my friend asked me what the significance of all the symmetrical shots was, my explanation went roughly like this:
Symmetry indicates Order. As an aesthetic, it became popular in the eighteenth century during what we commonly refer to as the Age of Reason. It was a time when we in Western Civilisation seemed to think that the Universe is an orderly place which could be understood completely through science.
After a couple of hundred years, however, we've realised just how complex the Universe is. It's so complex, in fact, that it can become overwhelming. Still, as humans, we need to feel as if everything is in order. It's a tool we use to help us cope with the Chaos of the natural world.
This tool can, however, when taken to extremes, become oppressive. That's what is so terrible about totalitarian regimes. They demand such extreme order that humans are not allowed to be human beings.
Two stills from Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
One gets this sense when watching Life Aquatic. The characters are in such need of order in their lives, which Anderson communicates to the audience in shot after shot of symmetrical compositions. After a while, however, one gets the feeling of oppression from so much symmetry.
(Notice also how in Anderson's movies, there are characters who place a high importance on wearing uniforms. Once again, this indicates the characters' need for a sense of order.)
While order has its place -- it's a useful tool -- we must remember that order alone is a machine which utilises logic to help us. What happens when humans get thrown into a machine of oppressive order, however, is we become its slaves.
Stanley Kubrick demonstrates this superbly in his films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Below, notice the still of the Discovery spaceship. In the composition of the shot, we see the ship itself in the background. The colours are black and white. Now, notice what the astronaut is wearing in the shot. Once again, black and white. Here, Kubrick is suggesting that the human being has become part of the spaceship. One almost forgets, even that there are three other humans in this shot. They are all in cryogenic stasis, so they show no signs of their humanity whatsoever. They have essentially become just parts of the ship.
Still from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It's no wonder that HAL, who is described as the perfect computer -- a computer who seems to show more emotions than the humans themselves -- decides that these humans must be deactivated because he considers them to be unreliable parts. This fact is mirrored in the way that the humans consider HAL to be unreliable and are simultaneously trying to deactivate him.
We must not let ourselves become slaves to rationality alone anymore than we should let ourselves become slaves to the machines we invent. That is why, in my belief, Reason must be tempered with Love. It is the only way in which we are going to be able to preserve our humanity.