Chalk it up to the declining reverence for art and artists or the rise of abysmal media literacy, those who dismiss Wes Anderson and his brilliant new film, Asteroid City, are clearly lost. And like the alien that hovers over our local and interloping characters of Asteroid City, they may succeed at first in disrupting our feelings for the film, but in the end, we won’t let them. Anderson’s profound, stunningly moving film is too masterful to give space to such lazy, superficial posturing about his style.
With Asteroid City, Anderson indeed doesn’t change much in his style and form, but he further proves why the grossly slick A.I. generated mimicries of his work going around the internet can never come close to his inimitable touch, writing, and visual storytelling. And with Asteroid City, the idea of a computer potentially superseding such a delicate, melancholy tale of loss, love, uncertainty, making art, and the harsh secrets of existence is tremendously depressing. To simply say once again that it’s just “Wes Anderson doing Wes Anderson” is to egregiously miss the mark on what he’s done here. Or you walked out before the third act, which is crucial to this film, that is, actually, Wes Anderson doing Wes Anderson for the first hour and half. However, like all works of art, you must take the whole thing in and if you fight an itching impatience (which I wouldn’t understand either because the whole film is comical and visually pleasant in its anamorphic widescreen with other scenes in 4:3 black-and-white), you’ll be rewarded immensely.
Anderson’s style has never been just indulgence or an aesthetically pleasing schtick. There’s a reason for the symmetry and the precision in all his films. His wonderfully composed frames always have meaning, always work to express the weight of whatever theme he’s exploring. In this case, it’s nothing new in terms of the Andersonian, but it’s more messy in its exactness. And that’s the point. It’s actually quite hard to articulate the genius of Asteroid City. I’ll try: Anderson has managed to both subvert and reiterate his own stylistic idiosyncrasies while also subtly calibrating it - his most thematically comprehensive study yet - to an emotionally satisfying, and hopeful, payoff.
Asteroid City, population 87, is a bus stop town in desert America. It’s 1955, so naturally, mushroom clouds can be seen in the distance, without any regard for the health effects from the close proximity (this isn’t a slight on the film, the US. government, nearby townsfolk, and even tourists didn’t consider what would become the nearby increase of cancer cases from the 1950s onward). Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzmann) and his son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), pull into town for the convention of Young Stargazers and Space Cadets hosted by local scientists and the U.S. military. Three weeks ago, Augie’s wife and Woodrow’s mom died. However, Augie is just now getting around to telling Woodrow and his three younger, hilarious sisters. Soon enough we meet Augie’s damaged new soulmate, famous actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards). Woodrow and Dinah are precocious “brainiacs” invited to the convention for their very cool, yet futile inventions.
There’s more, however, literally, behind the curtain. Asteroid City is not a real place and this story is a play. We start with a scene in black-and-white and Bryan Cranston introduces a television audience to an “apocryphal fabrication” of a fictional drama. This immediately sets the stage, so to speak, for what is about to unravel, though not entirely unveiled until the end. Being a film about a play (“Asteroid City”) inside a play (the black-and-white scenes are about the playwright Conrad Earp and the actors portraying the “Asteroid City” characters) broadcast on a TV program, it’s a bit hard to follow at times. Throw in Anderson’s eloquent, breathless dialogue and a rewatch is certain to be necessary. On top of this, there are plenty of other memorable characters in both the play and behind the scenes of the play, played so well by its cast (Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Maya Hawke, Matt Dillon, Liev Schreiber, even Hong Chau and Jeff Goldblum) we wish there was more time to spend with them. There’s one big name at the end, in a scene with Schwartzmann, that leaves the lasting impression, however, giving us the gut-punch we didn’t see coming, so cunningly devised by Anderson. A lot happens, including visitors from space (very important), two pairs of budding love, and executive-ordered quarantine. I leave the rest to be enjoyed actually seeing the movie. It’s truly a delightful film.
What struck me about Asteroid City, and perhaps I’ll appreciate it more on a rewatch, is the depth in which Anderson ventures into, both cerebral and emotional. It’s come at the right time for me personally, but this is truly a universal story about the human mind and heart (not that all stories need to be universally relatable, absolutely not a prerequisite for storytelling as many in our culture seem to be suggesting lately and sadly). That line at the beginning, “apocryphal fabrication,” uttered so clearly and ostensibly emphasized by Bryan Cranston, is crucial to not only understanding Asteroid City, but maybe even our lives. It sort of breaks the brain, doesn’t it? It plays into these meta layers of the film as well as our own knowledge and preconceptions about Americana and the desert landscape in the 1950s. By the time you can decipher that line, Cranston’s host is already introducing the playwright (Edward Norton). It’s a mess of a film, but the convoluted construction is the point. Anderson, a filmmaker of already numerous masterpieces, continues to master his medium. Somehow and so skillfully, Anderson wraps the film’s many threads into a complete heart-shaped cloth.
How many of our own chaotic lives are apocryphal fabrications? Or maybe just apocryphal, existing for a time and then not existing, the story of your life basically hidden and gone as if it never happened. What’s the fabrication? That’s in your head. What do we tell ourselves in order to endure and maintain this existence? More lies than truths perhaps?
Both science and religion play minor roles in Asteroid City and once an alien sets foot on earth, neither of these can explain the phenomenon. There are limits even to the things we cling to for meaning, comfort, and answers. We seek our own footing on the cliff we are dangling from, each finger slowly plucking off like a cartoon before we fall into that one absolute called death. It’s heavy stuff, to be sure. However, Anderson counters it, cleverly and gently reminding us to just hold on. The fingers won’t be enough in the end, whenever that is, but they are right now. Each one symbolizing what you’re holding on for, look at them. “Use your grief,” Midge advises Augie. “Trust your curiosity,” another character says. And the most pivotal line: “I still don’t understand the play,” the actor playing Augie says, to which he’s told, “It doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”
Living is a desperate endeavor. We may not have had any say about entering it, but we do about living it. Our only choice is to use what we’ve been given and seek what we haven’t. Don’t cling to a fallible identity with “answers,” but feel free to fabricate meaning in your life through imagination, creation, love, or whatever it is you choose. Make sense of what’s out there through the apocryphal story you tell yourself. If it comes from within, then it is meaningful and true. Accept the great lack of understanding. If an alien lands on earth tomorrow, everyone else’s reality will be just as shattered. They too will have to reassess their own apocryphal fabrication they’ve built to combat this nonsensical existence. I prefer John Keats's revelation, Negative Capability: when an individual is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. A vital philosophy for the artist, though anyone can strive to live by it.
We’ll send rovers to space to find answers, which is amazing, and the rover’s journey will never end but our contact with it will eventually. We can read memoirs about people dying for a few minutes, claiming to see the afterlife or God, but we’ll all end up with the same assessment about the story being exploited for money because people, tormented by the unknown, will spend it for answers. But Wes Anderson reminds us with Asteroid City, dropping it into the current crowd full of despairing “consumers of content,” that art, love, and the space both inside of us and outside of this world can be sought and used less to find answers than meaning. And once one begins to understand the latter, despite the discomfort it will bring, the former becomes obsolete and unnecessary. “Am I doing him right?” asks the actor for Augie. That’s a question we all could ask about ourselves. Who knows, just keep telling your story, and live it.
You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
the darkness of each endless fall,
the shimmering light of each ascent.
So many are alive who don't seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
as though untouched.
But you take pleasure in the faces
of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
who grip you for survival.
You are not dead yet, it's not too late
to open your depths by plunging into them
and drink in the life
that reveals itself quietly there.
- Rainer Maria Rilke