Asteroid City defies categorization. It is a play within a television special within a film, a vertical consolidation of forms that encourages its audience to take its subject with a healthy dose of salt. While it blurs conventions of media, it remains quintessentially Wes Anderson, imbued with his thematic and aesthetic signatures: pastel hues, symmetry, flat compositions, family drama, and caricatures of authority. The film is largely thematic, buttressed by a simple plot and grounded by impressive performances. It is an exploration of the nature of spectacle and love, as well as how we comprehend the incomprehensible.
Asteroid City opens with a parody of an introductory segment of a postwar-era PBS special broadcast, promising a behind-the-scenes look at the titular play. The play follows war photojournalist Augie Steinbeck (Jason Schwartzman) as he takes his children to the titular desert city for a prodigious astronomy competition in which his son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), is a finalist. We learn that Augie is recently widowed and grappling with how to break the devastating news to his children—literally clinging to an urn of his wife’s ashes. He meets jaded actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) at the Junior Stargazer convention, whose daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), is another contestant. An astronomer (Tilda Swinton), gruff father-in-law (Tom Hanks), five-star general (Jeffrey Wright), a group of elementary schoolers led by a young school teacher (Maya Hawke), and a band of cowboys comprise the rest of the eclectic cast-within-the-cast.
There is also, of course, an alien. Anderson is an intrinsically ocular filmmaker, and while Asteroid City is defined by its ambiguities, omitting an overt depiction of extraterrestrials would be a stylistic departure for him. The humanoid (Jeff Goldblum) is charmingly cartoonish, executed using a stop-motion puppet, in contrast to the pastel-hued realism of the rest of the film. This feels congruent solely because of the setup, as the actors in the play are obligated to react to a man-made conception of alien life as though it were truly descending from the sky. It does not need to seem realistic because the audience has already been entreated to suspend their disbelief.
Throughout the film, Anderson consistently cuts back to the production of the play, written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). These sequences are aesthetically distinguished by greyscale, depicting the “real” happenings between the cast and crew as they navigate the act of creation, from paper to stage. The characters in the play have contrived reasons for their actions, while the emotional complexities of the actors and artists behind them are infinitely vast and inexplicable. Their behind-the-scenes relationships may have some bearings on the final product, though what they are is up to interpretation. Does Schubert’s wife leaving him influence his direction of divorcée Midge’s ostensible indifference towards her daughter? Did Conrad’s affair with the actor playing Augie lead to the character’s sympathetic portrayal despite his selfishness? The implication here is clear: In the debate over whether it is possible to separate art from the artist, Anderson posits a resounding no.
As the box office becomes increasingly dominated by high-spectacle pastiche, it is no wonder that original filmmakers like Anderson are reckoning with the notion of spectacle. What garners attention is fickle until it is predictable: aliens, superheroes, Scarlett Johansson, et cetera. In this regard, Asteroid City is thematically similar to Jordan Peele’s Nope, another desert-set film where alleged alien sightings prompt a media circus. As audience members, the on-screen presence of extraterrestrial beings does not have the same shock value as the characters’ experience. We have accepted the fantastic in the world of cinema, and we are now more drawn to a star-studded cast than an otherworldly being. Popularity is the one aspect of cinema that filmmakers cannot control, unless they sign onto an existing franchise or their reputation precedes them. The barrier to entry into the film industry has become monopolised by large studios more intent on expanding their existing properties than producing original content.
Prestige, on the other hand, is a privilege Anderson can take for granted. His films cater to a particular demographic of film connoisseurs who will read into his intentions, however vague. In his previous endeavor, The French Dispatch, another star-studded visually satisfying saga, the anthology format permitted Anderson to maneuver through a farrago of ideas as though he were speed-dating short film pitches. The themes of Asteroid City, by comparison, are so straightforward that he practically winks at the viewer. Any overtly cliche or melodramatic plot points can be ascribed away from him due to the narrative ambiguities of the multimodal format. He doesn’t need to know why Augie deliberately burns his hand on a griddle—that responsibility is deferred to the actor and, secondly, to the character within the play. No one is sure of what’s happening, but that is, arguably, the point.
Should Anderson be permitted to flirt noncommittally with different themes and present it as a cohesive product? It is undeniable that he benefits from a cult of male genius, and it is possible to criticise his effective exceptionalism based on his laurels as a successful white, male director. He has always, however, been a filmmaker who entrusts his audience to fill in the gaps in his vision, concocting films that are feasts for the eye and amuse bouches for the mind. Asteroid City is no exception to this critique, though one could argue that, given the existentialist leanings of the film, a definitive thesis would seem overwrought.
Asteroid City is a brilliantly self-aware, visually rich film full of predictably excellent performances. It is truly a testament to Anderson’s creative ability and professional ethos that he is able to assemble such an incredible cast for each of his productions. His metacritical lens on artistic verisimilitude is at once ambiguous and accessible, suggesting that even he questions the motivations of his characters and his own motivations for writing them. The result is an absorbing, aesthetically satisfying film that is as compelling (and bewildering) to watch as it is to discuss afterward.
Elspeth Campbell is a sophomore in the College studying Math and Political Economy.