Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s latest hyper-stylized motion picture event. It is a bright and colorful love letter to the 1950s aesthetic and gumption the era is known for while also delivering several possible themes. Starring basically every working actor in Hollywood, Asteroid City benefits from an abundance of characters with fun and entertaining quirks but is also hampered by a slightly convoluted plot line.
I saw Asteroid City back in June of this year, and I’ve been meaning to write about it for the longest time but never got around to it. I thought I could do with a little more education about Anderson’s style before I judged this particular project. As such, I went on a little Wes Anderson trip and my appreciation for his whimsical style and unique blend of storytelling has really grown on me. I returned to The French Dispatch, Isle of Dogs, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. These are all good movies, but it wasn’t until I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel that it all clicked into place.
This isn’t a review of The Grand Budapest, but after watching it I understood what makes Anderson such an appealing director, and my appreciation for his work skyrocketed. I think out of the projects I’ve seen, that is his best work by far. And while Asteroid City is a really good movie, it’s not my favorite.
…An abundance of characters with fun and entertaining quirks…
Headlining Asteroid City is the trio of Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, and Tom Hanks. All three are frequent Anderson collaborators, alongside the likes of Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, and Jeff Goldblum. There are many more faces that audiences will recognize but I won’t go into all of them. Each character is full of depth and purpose, with no throwaways. Everybody has a reason for being there and that’s just in the play version of Asteroid City.
Take it up a notch to the televised production of the play and audiences are given a whole second helping of characterization and meta performances that both delight and confuse. The bonus layers of character profiles make everything that much deeper but further illustrate how messy this movie gets at times.
The jumps back and forth between the televised play production and the play itself were a little harsh at times. A casual audience who’s unfamiliar with Anderson’s whimsical style may not enjoy these transitions and the commentary they provide. But for fans of Anderson who know what to expect when they buy a ticket or rent one of his movies, it’ll scratch that itch.
… It is absolutely gorgeous.
As for the look and feel of the drama, it is absolutely gorgeous. The colors flow together in a sun-bleached, washed-out pastel sort of way. The dusty set design of Asteroid City in the desert looks so warm and exciting. Anderson has always had a great appreciation for miniatures and the set pieces comprised of those models added so much texture to every scene that wouldn’t have been possible or practical if it was done full size.
Despite the colors and warm feeling of the movie, the thematic structure is a little confusing. Many people have asked, “What the heck does it mean?”. I don’t think there’s ONE right answer – there are many and the one that you think is correct might be it.
For me, the theme that Anderson may have been trying to convey is that it’s OK to feel hopeless and not know your place in the universe from time to time. Jake Ryan’s character was so sure of his dreams at the start but as the play progressed, he realized it wasn’t what he wanted anymore. He became unsure of his direction in life.
The televised production of the play was filled with such questions as well. For example, the alien never got quite nailed down. That could mean two things – the characters themselves never nail it down OR the writer never nailed it down and there is no answer. I think it’s the latter, the writer was unsure of what it should be but just let it happen. There doesn’t need to be an answer to every question and it’s ok to be a little lost sometimes.
Asteroid City is a colorful and cleverly written metamodern commentary on finding your place in the universe. It is chock full of recognizable names and faces but the subplot does lead audiences down a peculiar line of thinking that some could get lost in. It is available to rent on Prime Video ($).
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Studio: Focus Features
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks