At its core, “Asteroid City” is not a movie. It is a play. A play within a play within a movie.
It’s a visually arresting, intellectually stimulating experience that may leave some viewers teary-eyed and others thoroughly confused.
The setting is the eponymous Asteroid City: a podunk in the middle of the desert with a population of 87, consisting of a one-pump gas station, a luncheonette, a small motor-court hotel, a telephone booth and its namesake: a giant crater left by the Arid Plains Asteroids on September 27, 3007 BC.
The scene? Surreal.
The palette? A blend of cool blues juxtaposed with Wild West oranges, evoking a lunar landscape. Shades of faded technicolor appear painted onto the comic-like landscape with vibrant neatness.
Introduced through a black and white, Twilight-Zonesque TV broadcast by Bryan Cranston, the story unfolds as a play centered around a youth stargazer convention in the sweltering Nevada desert. However, the sudden appearance of an alien (portrayed by Jeff Goldblum) leads to the city’s quarantine by the US government.
War photographer Augie Steenbeck (played by Jones Hall, portrayed by Jason Schwartzmann) confronts the harsh realities of loneliness and adulthood in this period.
As Augie interacts with other characters, the dialogue is distinct — a metronomical deadpan devoid of emotion.
Or, at least, it sounds that way. To some, this eccentric, rapid-fire style is off-putting; if one listens closer, however, heartache simmers beneath the surface.
As another character, actor Midge Campbell (played by Mercedes Ford, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) tells Augie:
“We’re just two catastrophically-wounded people who don’t express the depths of our pain because… we don’t want to.”
These monotonous but strangely profound and emotional pontifications are punctuated by theater-esque intertitles and reality switches, from the play “Asteroid City” to the city it’s based on to the real world outside of it.
Amidst all these oddities, the film becomes satirical and detached from reality. It’s a meta-film — by perhaps the only true auteur of this generation who subtly poses deeper questions about the human condition while defying genre, logic and convention.
Wes Anderson, a philosophy major turned filmmaker, never stepped foot in a film school. Yet he’s carved a niche within Hollywood with his own quirky, idiosyncratic style, embodied perfectly in his latest film.
His ensemble cast for “Asteroid City” reads like a who’s who of four decades of Hollywood: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Hope Davis, Steve Park, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie and Tony Revolori.
This cast, much like a theater company that stays together for months of performances, is bonded by Anderson’s gravitational pull, film after film. Jason Schwartzman, who plays the film’s main character, has appeared in eight Anderson films before this one.
They again and again delight in the cerebral absurdity of his scenarios and settings as they take the stage of “Asteroid City.”
This sort of film-making is familiar to adherents of Anderson’s past work: “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” all evoke similar aesthetics.
Anderson’s trademarks are present throughout the film: perfectly symmetrical set designs, immaculately linear shots, and at times, seemingly 2D backgrounds reminiscent of a theater set. He approaches movie-making with creative yet mathematical precision.
Through miniaturized trains and storybook moons, Anderson manages to reconstruct reality within his own paradigm of color, texture and geometry — tearing down the curtain separating reel from real in the process.
It’s this signature feel that has drawn so many to Anderson’s work; yet he simultaneously alienates those who find this style untenable.
Weird, wacky, irritating, odd — perhaps “Asteroid City” is all these things. But should not art clash against convention?
Asteroid City is not just a movie. It is also a statement about meaning, or lack thereof.
It asks us: what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What are we doing? What are we looking for?
It does not give us any answers, tell us what to think or feel, preach, judge, impose, dictate, claim or assert.