Out in the desert, isolation seems inevitable. On the stage, while attempting to act convincingly in front of an audience, isolation may also seem inevitable.
Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City explores this idea with a star-studded cast in a western sci-fi play in which the audience is given a glimpse into the behind the scenes through a meta television show and must fight to find meaning in the story’s message.
Asteroid City, which was released in theaters on June 23, plays to Anderson’s strengths as a director and writer with both artistic dialogue and immersive cinematography. The film begins with a simple premise but quickly develops into a multitude of meta, self-referential layers, leading the audience to question the narrative that Anderson relates.
The film begins in the American West in the 1950s. Families bring their children, who won awards for their inventions, to a space convention. Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) uses this opportunity to confess dire news to his children—their mom died weeks ago.
Woodrow (Jake Ryan), his oldest son, then embarks on a journey to seek out future ambitions once the convention ends. He finds himself bonding with the other geeky teen scientists and dispelling grief over his mother. His three young sisters, who imagine themselves as a witch, a fairy, and a mummy, combine their magic to bury her ashes in the desert sand. And Augie, lost over his wife’s death, struggles to see a future alone with his children.
These conflicts all play out in a mundane fashion. The characters are lethargic and unmoved by the absurdity of their lives. A nuclear bomb ignites in the distance while the family has pancakes. Police cars chase gunmen without any reaction from the convention goers. In one scene—in lieu of a reaction to chaos at the convention—Anderson shows the award-winning children playing a dull memorization game for several minutes without disruption.
The film increases the insanity of the situation around the characters to nearly no avail. Everyone in Asteroid City adapts quickly to their surroundings, as if nothing is wrong.
Asteroid City frequently cuts away from this desert story to reveal that it is a play, showing its making and the vision of its creators Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). The meta aspect is seamlessly integrated with the rest of the film, which Anderson splits into parts using act and scene title cards.
While the Asteroid City story progresses on stage, questions as to the play’s meaning begin to stir behind the curtains.
Finally things come to head as something forever world-changing occurs. A UFO touches down on Asteroid City and an alien emerges.
Quickly the tempo of the film increases. Characters begin to act more animated as if new life has filled them up. At the same time, the play’s cast is beginning to become rattled as well, not knowing what the play’s meaning is.
Anderson’s film attempts to reach for more than it can handle. What Asteroid City becomes is a scary observation about human life. Anderson tries to exemplify loneliness, the denial of the inevitability of inexistence that occurs day to day, and the lack of terror most people feel about the unknown.
At times Asteroid City is probing the viewers to ask: Why is no one freaking out? Why is everyone acting normal? Then, Anderson’s film makes viewers question their own lives. Why does it take an alien for humans to be reminded of their mortality and short-lived consciousness? Why aren’t the viewers freaking out already?
The self-referential aspect of the film gets muddied by Anderson’s infusion of comedy, romance, grief, religion, and science fiction. Even his attention to cinematography and maintaining of his trademark Wes Anderson–style of filmmaking diverts from the message of the film. Perhaps, by some infinitely layered genius, this was purposeful.
The true upset of Asteroid City was its short run time and odd pacing. Just as the characters began to take shape, the film came to an end. Just as the themes finally began to emerge, Anderson’s credits started rolling. What’s left of Asteroid City is a film that isn’t really for mainstream audiences or analytical movie buffs. Rather, the film seems to have been made more for the religiously devoted fandom of Wes Anderson’s style.
Anderson’s latest project has the sparks of ambition without fully committing to them. The result is a movie that is half in and half out, at risk of being empty or pretentious, and leaning too heavily on color grading and symmetrical shots—the usual Wes Anderson core.