‘Asteroid City’ is Wes Anderson’s Visually Splendid Assault on Loneliness

[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]

How much time do you spend pondering your place in the universe?

The world around us is constantly changing. Crisis after crisis, both minuscule and monumental, are lobbed at us with rapid-fire frequency. Is there time to consider what it means to be a speck in an endless void of space and time that we may never fully contemplate? Is it worth it to even try?

Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s excavation of our collective existence through extraterrestrial panic. In 1955, the American desert town of Asteroid City, home to a meteor crater site, is hosting a Junior Stargazer convention, bringing children and their families from across the country together. During the convention, an alien visits, steals the meteor, and drives the town into chaos. The US government quarantines the town and lies to the public. The isolated group of strangers are left grapple with their emotional challenge. War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) is dealing with the loss of his wife. Actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) is considering with the limits of her career. Flustered elementary school teacher June (Maya Hawke) tries to explain the unexplainable cosmos to her students.

But all is not as it seems in Asteroid City. To start, it doesn’t exist. It is a play staged by the playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), the development documented for a fictional television program. Every character in the play has a “real world” counterpart: Jones Halls plays Augie, while Mercedes Ford plays Midge. Asteroid City, a play within a TV series within a film, weaves in and out of bright technicolor and monochrome to navigate between its tale of two stories.

The Asteroid City play is Wes Anderson at the height of his visual prowess. The film in this mode is a striking array of eye-popping colors that Anderson communicates through hazy cinematography, exceptional camera blocking, and charming production design. The style will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Grand Budapest Hotel and other key Anderson works. However, Asteroid City carries a playful vibrance and tangibility that is compelling in our current cinematic climate. The set pieces and sci-fi elements are terribly clever and engaging in their stylistic artifice. (There’s little more delightful than the visiting alien posing for Augie’s camera.)

(L to R) Jake Ryan as “Woodrow”, Jason Schwartzman as “Augie Steenbeck” and Tom Hanks as “Stanley Zak” in writer/director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

The visuals complement Asteroid City’s delightfully bone-dry humor. Anderson’s script takes full advantage of his story’s natural absurdity to dial up the sardonic vibes with each brilliant line. At the comedy’s core is an unvarnished truth, the characters’ refusal or inability to align with the rules of civility. One standout moment finds Augie telling his children that their mother died (three weeks ago). He explains that she is Heaven, which he doesn’t believe in, but they can because they are Episcopalian. It’s one of many brutally, perhaps inappropriately, honest lines, which all land exceedingly well. Besides being wickedly sharp, Anderson’s humor starkly contrasts the deliberately, delightfully contrived set pieces. They are in concert, bolstering the success of the other while remaining compelling in their own right. It is Anderson at what may be his most startlingly self-aware, but what does he make of the realization?

Asteroid City uses its characters’ crisis to examine our deep-seated need for connection and the forces that severe the possibilities. Augie, played by the sublime Jason Schwartzman, buries his grief over his wife’s death beneath layers of aloofness. Only through his windowsill meetings with Midge (a resplendently heartbreaking Scarlett Johannson) is his armor chipped at as he connects with someone equally disconnected from their emotions. Nearly every character yearns for contact and a better understanding of their place in the world, especially after the alien arrival upends the concept. Amongst Anderson’s brutally honest humor are moments of stunning emotional clarity from adults and children alike. The filmmaker is in open rebellion against the ennui that left us collectively paralyzed these past few years.

(L to R) Hong Chau stars as “Polly” and Adrien Brody stars as “Schubert Green” in writer/director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Anderson wages the battle less successfully in Asteroid City’s making-of-the-play story. While not precisely a distraction, the “real” characters lack the color (no pun intended) and depth of their fictional counterparts. There are interesting moments – Jones’ sexually charged character read with Conrad Earp, Mercedes’ tete-a-tete with Conrad’s assistant – but they don’t coalesce. It isn’t until near the end, when Hall effectively breaks the fourth wall by leaving the stage, that Anderson’s intentions for this story become clearer. Hall comes to understand that what matters isn’t necessarily the point of a story but to keep telling it anyway. One beauty of that resolve is the connections we form, potently realized in Hall’s interaction with the actress meant to play his deceased wife (Margot Robbie).

The two stories don’t fully gel comfortably together, but Asteroid City succeeds marvelously as a surprisingly profound exploration of ennui’s destructive forces. Anderson’s visual instincts and humor have never been sharper, making for one of the year’s most artistically striking films. Even more impressive is his vulnerability and willingness to engage in thoughtful, eye-opening conversations about the human condition. While unmistakably Wes Anderson, this film invites deeper consideration beyond his inimitable style to a place of aching, deeply resonant honesty. 

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