“The world will never be the same.”
Wes Anderson has provided an output like no other; a collection of films that finds humor in the minutiae of everyday life that hold up just as much now as they did when first released. The writer/director has found both arthouse and commercial success with films that manage to feel classic without coming off as antiquated. This is due in large part to the literary feel his movies possess as well as their uniqueness, both of which have helped to establish Anderson as his own singular cinematic voice. Anderson remains the rarest of breeds; one of the few auteurs whose projects can count on notable actors, good-sized budgets, and healthy distribution. Still, some are firmly not in the Anderson camp with some moviegoers feeling his brand of filmmaking is too precious with regards to his visual flair and penchant for the quirky side of society. His latest effort, Asteroid City, doesn’t look to alter opinions about Anderson’s cinematic trademarks, most of which are present and accounted for this time around. However, should his detractors be willing to give him another chance, they may find an Anderson at his most experimental.
Set in the 1950s, the film takes place in the titular Asteroid City, a two-stop town where a collection of young scientists known as “stargazers” and their parents gather to attend a convention. Among them are a grieving widower (Jason Schwartzman), a beautiful movie star (Scarlett Johansson), and a crotchety grandfather (Tom Hanks), among others. Together with the town’s motel manager (Steve Carell), an Army general (Jeffrey Wright), and a renowned astronomer (Tilda Swinton), the large group find themselves sequestered together when an unexpected event takes place.
Everyone going into Asteroid City will be expecting the kind of Anderson-flavored romp that the film’s trailers have promised. There will be a collection of assorted actors playing characters that recite one sharp-witted Anderson-ism after another with a precise flow that finds the humor of whatever situation is taking place. All of this happens in another Anderson world that feels like an art installation come to life, this time with a variety of sherbet colors. The world Anderson has constructed in Asteroid City is certainly a comment on the Eisenhower era of perfection and pastels when life felt prosperous and exciting, especially in the way of technical innovation. The film’s take on nostalgia here is certainly a loving one, at least from a surface point of view. But Asteroid City finds its creator delving a bit further, exposing the absurdity of the decade and everyone’s instinct to excuse or altogether ignore the reality of the world they’re living in. Anderson takes this further by also looking at the somberness of the 1950s and the sort of wandering quality that ran underneath the picturesque façade. Whether pondering the afterlife or the idea of aliens, each of the key characters in Asteroid City finds themselves questioning the meaning of the world they live in and their own place within it.
There’s a dual side to Asteroid City not shown in any of the film’s marketing. Divided into acts of a play, the film’s main story takes occasional black-and-white breaks where we see each of the central characters as actors in a stage production of the very movie the audience is watching. Presiding over them is Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), the tortured, slightly temperamental playwright whose work has consumed him to the point that it has cost him his marriage and his sanity. It’s hard not to see Schubert as a testament to the great Rod Serling, especially in the way he revises his play while interacting with those starring in it. These scenes are actually very reminiscent of an episode of Night Gallery titled “Midnight Never Ends,” a Serling-penned tale about two strangers who insist they’ve met before though they can’t remember where. The episode ends with the reveal that both of them were creations of a blocked writer who is struggling with where to take the people he’s created. I can only assume that Anderson himself is familiar with the episode and that the inclusion of the black and white scenes represents his own Serling-like moments as an artist. Anderson has created such a bevy of memorable characters and distinct worlds, it only stands to reason that at some point he has grappled with his creativity and has reconciled such struggles enough to expose them to his audience.
From a performance standpoint, Asteroid City contains one of the most eclectic ensembles ever to populate a Wes Anderson film. Longtime familiars like Schwartzman, Wright, and Swinton show up once again to help bring Anderson’s nuanced quirkiness to life in the ways they’ve proven themselves capable of before. Elsewhere, Anderson novices like Hanks, Johannson, and Carrell find themselves instantly at home and become instantly in tune well with the filmmaker’s very specific level of comedy. Whether a stalwart in the director’s company of players, or one that is new to the fold, the performances remain firmly in the vein of Anderson’s storytelling world.
The comparisons of Asteroid City to Anderson’s last offering, The French Dispatch, are inevitable. Refreshingly, however, the only real parallel between the two films (apart from some of the aforementioned returning cast members and a typically lush aesthetic) is the way Anderson is continuing with a newfound desire to experiment even further with the intricate worlds he so lovingly creates. Here he has crafted two worlds as different as can be that are also unmistakably Wes Anderson. Both worlds offer up moments of playfulness and pensiveness. The film shows the different sides of the writer/director as a visual artist, while also giving an insight into his psyche, all of which is wrapped up in a story set during one of the most influential periods of American history. How will Asteroid City fit into the canon of Wes Anderson films? My guess is that time will be kind to it. But in 10 years, most (if not all) of Anderson’s admirers will be able to see the film as one of his most vulnerable moments as an artist and recognize Asteroid City as perhaps his most sensitive of works.