The typical discussion around the release of a new Wes Anderson film is for reviewers to say that this latest film won’t win over anyone not already charmed by Anderson’s idiosyncratic style. ASTEROID CITY perhaps provides a rare exception as a film that may be a good jumping-on point for non-Anderson fans. The director’s latest film emphasises the best qualities of Anderson’s previous work while engaging with deeper, more existential themes and a clearer sense of how his writing’s emotional resonance breaks through his layers of postmodern artifice.
Like THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, ASTEROID CITY’s narrative is a story within a story within a story. The film opens with a host (Bryan Cranston) presenting a television show documenting the process of mounting a play from writing to casting to performance. The play within the TV show concerns a group of people who arrive at Asteroid City, USA and experience an alien encounter that requires the town to be quarantined.
For the non-Anderson fan, the postmodern metatextuality of the play within a TV show (within a film) may provide a neat ‘explanation’ for Anderson’s idiosyncratic aesthetic. Anderson’s distinctive visual style (developed alongside cinematographer Robert Yeoman), highly crafted production design, and snappy editing are fully present in this film. The nested narratives create the effect of watching a stage play in cinema, and the overt artifice may win over those unconvinced with the style when used in Anderson’s more implicitly realist films.
The film’s main narrative (the narrative of the play) follows Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) as a recently widowed war photographer taking his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to the Junior Stargazer event at Asteroid City for a ceremony bringing together other gifted space-obsessed kids. Augie’s recent loss of his wife and his struggle to parent his four children allow Anderson to explore his recurrent themes around parenthood and grief, but ASTEROID CITY ventures beyond these to comment on American culture and explore deeper themes.
“The search for meaning in the wreckage of American modernism develops into a key theme in the film. […] characters yearn for a sense of meaning beyond the old pre-modernist core beliefs in God and country and beyond their personal and national grief.”
Wes Anderson was born in Texas but has lived mainly in Europe since 2005, and ASTEROID CITY is his first film in over a decade set in the United States of America. While his films like THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and THE FRENCH DISPATCH pay tribute to a particular climate of mid-20th Century European modernism, ASTEROID CITY’S American West locale and 1950s time period establish the film within the context of the USA’s postmodernist turn. From the ironic commercialism of the land rights vending machine to the joint military and industrial space convention, this is an America in dialogue with itself after World War II. As a war photographer physically scarred by war and emotionally scarred by grief, Augie is a microcosm of post-war America. Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a Marilyn Monroe-type star whom Augie befriends, refers to Augie and herself as “catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of our pain because we don’t want to”. The play is bookended by distant mushroom clouds in the desert, reminding us of America coming to terms with World War II’s tragic crimes.
The search for meaning in the wreckage of American modernism develops into a key theme in the film. Even before the encounter with the alien, characters are searching for meaning through their children, their artistic work, or their scientific endeavours. After the alien, their view of life and the universe is changed: “What’s out there?” asks Woodrow, “The meaning of life, maybe there is one.” Within the play and the metanarrative outside the play, characters yearn for a sense of meaning beyond the old pre-modernist core beliefs in God and country and beyond their personal and national grief.
“…a message about enjoying art and culture that could be a thesis statement for Anderson’s blends of modernist sincerity and postmodern irony. ASTEROID CITY’s lasting gift is an emotional resonance that could act as a skeleton key to Anderson’s films, even for those who’ve previously found them cold and unapproachable.”
And yet, despite the heaviness of this existential theme and the irony of the film’s postmodern conceits, Anderson retains a sense of heartfelt sincerity. As if talking directly to the non-Anderson fan, the play’s director (Adrien Brody) says that the meaning doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it or have a different interpretation: the story is the key. Keep going with the story, even if you don’t understand the meaning. It’s a message about enjoying art and culture that could be a thesis statement for Anderson’s blends of modernist sincerity and postmodern irony. ASTEROID CITY’s lasting gift is an emotional resonance that could act as a skeleton key to Anderson’s films, even for those who’ve previously found them cold and unapproachable.