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Asteroid City: Wes Anderson’s Packed Ensemble Piece is his Most Self-Reflexive, Mildly-Confusing Film Yet

Scarlett Johansson in director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Asteroid City preview screening provided by Universal Pictures

Asteroid City feels like Wes Anderson’s most inward looking film, one that is at once sentimental and reminiscent of his best works”

There are few working directors who have such a pronounced, identifiable visual style as that of Wes Anderson. From the doll-house diorama that has become his signature, to the eye popping production design and the attention to detail in all areas of mise-en-scene –––his films are uniquely his own. Asteroid City (2023) is no different in that regard. His latest ensemble period piece is rife with all the eccentricities and pizzazz that has characterised his oeuvre from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) to Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), fan favourite The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and the more recent The French Dispatch (2021). But Asteroid City might be his most poignant of the lot, whether for better or worse.

And that’s saying a lot given this is a director that has never shied away from placing grief at the forefront of his stories, often undercutting the weight of said grief with wry humour and characters that speak like they like they’re from a fourth dimension. But it’s for that reason that Asteroid City sets itself apart from his past films given it does feel like it’s playing in an otherworldly fourth dimension with layers upon layers stacking on each other that blur the line between artifice and reality (along with all the actual asteroidy, alien stuff). 

It’s a film that opens with Bryan Cranston presenting a television show while framed in a 4:3 black and white aspect ratio; he’s setting the stage (literally) for a televised play that will be performed in a fictional 1950s Western town, Asteroid City. A desolate backwater town in every right –––there’s one petrol station, a freeway ramp that ends just as it begins, cacti and desert as far as the eye can see etc.––– its name reflects the events that have informed it, namely a large crater that is being studied by scientists. As pretty and precise as the production design team present this colourful world, it’s not a place that anyone would want to visit for more than the two hours of the film’s runtime, including Wes Anderson’s own characters, unless there’s a reason to. 

One such character is Augie Steenbeck (frequent Wes go-to, Jason Schwartzman), a bearded war photographer who finds himself stranded in the town while attending the ‘reason to’: an ‘Asteroid Day’ event where young brainiacs will present their latest inventions to budding government officials. He’s there with his three daughters, straight talking son Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and what’s left of his wife in a tupperware bowl full of her ashes. But on a more macro level, he’s one of the many floating souls trying to figure out where to move next (like the train that chugs to this town) on this train we call life. 

(L to R) Rupert Friend as "Montana", Stephen Park as "Roger Cho", Hope Davis as "Sandy Borden", Jason Schwartzman as "Augie Steenbeck", Tilda Swinton as "Dr. Hickenlooper", Jeffrey Wright as "General Gibson", Tony Revolori as "Aide-de-Camp", Bob Balaban as "Larkings Executive", Mike Maggart as "Detective #2", Fisher Stevens as "Detective #1" in writer/director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

(L to R) Rupert Friend as “Montana”, Stephen Park as “Roger Cho”, Hope Davis as “Sandy Borden”, Jason Schwartzman as “Augie Steenbeck”, Tilda Swinton as “Dr. Hickenlooper”, Jeffrey Wright as “General Gibson”, Tony Revolori as “Aide-de-Camp”, Bob Balaban as “Larkings Executive”, Mike Maggart as “Detective #2”, Fisher Stevens as “Detective #1” in writer/director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

There are no easy answers as it turns out, a sentiment shared by another of the town’s guests, actress Midge Campbell (a brilliantly subtle Scarlett Johansson). She’s seen the highs and lows of the industry and of her own life, doesn’t have an optimistic outlook on how her life will end up, and hers and Augie’s interplay after meeting in the town’s diner is some of the most compelling –––two characters on different plains, looking at each through different windows, trying to make sense of the world and their place in it.

Most of Asteroid City plays out similarly, with each of the characters, and the people playing them in this play within a play within a film, bouncing off of each other whether in a circle reciting names of famous people as the whiz kids do, or in a spontaneously jovial breakout into song and dance. There’s Tilda Swinton playing a scientist, Steve Carrell as a motor inn owner, Jeffrey Wright as a military official, and even Tim Dillon as a mechanic, and all of these characters, in true Andersonian fashion, are more similar than they are apart, if not for their straight faced talking, then definitely for the fact that they’re all going through the motions. 

That’s not to say that Wes regulars won’t eat this film up given it’s imbued with all of the quirks they’ll love, though its biggest criticism is that it tailspins from moment to moment without ever giving you the luxury of appreciating its nuances in ways that The Grand Budapest Hotel might have. There’s still zany dialogue, a wide array of performers (some with really brief moments), and enough humour to break the edginess (like Liev Schreiber wielding a death ray, or Steve Carrell’s character whipping up martini’s in a vending machine-esque device).

At one point Augie confides that it’s through his camera that he can truly see, and it speaks to this overarching sense of longing that these characters have for something tangible, a way of understanding what it is they’re actually looking at and experiencing, of being in control and ordering their lives the way they want to. The film’s most climactic moment –––an alien interrupting the stargazing event to take the little rock that caused the crater––– speaks to that sentiment as the characters so amusingly accept this intrusion to their event almost as a reminder that in order to truly see, one has to open themselves to forces greater than them. It’s perhaps what leads Anderson to oscillate between the play itself and the production around it, as though he’s guiding the audience to see beyond the play and the characters within the play within the televised program within the movie, to show that no matter how planned or well thought out something is on paper, there’s always something extra or unseen hiding behind the curtain (or in the distant sky). 

Whether or not this is supposed to be read as a self-critique by Anderson on his own knack for trying to order everything so succinctly (he literally breaks the film into acts to further break the flow through an aesthetic intrusion) or simply a clap back at critics that see without truly seeing, is hard to decipher. But Asteroid City feels like the director’s most inward looking film, if not for the very fact that it shows all of these layers crashing together, then definitely because it spirals so far into its own metaphors that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a large scale therapy session unfold. Yet there’s a palpable sadness in seeing people try and wrap their heads around the meaning of everything, but never truly able to find meaning in themselves. 

Asteroid City opens nationally from the 10th of August, 2023. 


Arnel Duracak

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