It seems with every subsequent film, Wes Anderson gets more … Wes Anderson. He has completely bought into his own hype, and the end result – “Asteroid City” – is as pretentious as ever, and absolutely delightful. Roman Coppola collaborated on the project.
Wes pulls out all his usual stops on a grander scale than we’ve ever seen before – with his signature kodak pastel colors, deadpan delivery, odd camera angles, use of multiple framing devices, stage-like low budget props, and his biggest ensemble cast yet (Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Margot Robbie, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Steve Carell to name a few). “Asteroid City” is, seemingly, a ‘50s-style TV show about the making of a play, and the play itself, all at the same time.
The play - also named “Asteroid City” – is set in a classic ‘50s motel town - also called “Asteroid City” (Wes never expects you to fully keep up, or for everything to make complete sense, I believe). This town is placed in the Southwestern United States and run by a mustachioed Steve Carell near a research facility. Nuclear bombs are frequently tested in the background, while denizens treat themselves to 25-cent apple pie in the local diner. The military, some cowboys, young schoolchildren, and a group of astronomers are present.
The plot (if you can call it that) follows several bright young people and their parents. The young savants have been brought to Asteroid City to be presented with awards for their inventions and discoveries by the army – but halfway through the proceedings, the town is disrupted by an extraterrestrial.
While the plot isn’t always easy to follow, I don’t think it’s entirely meant to be. The play is broken down into multiple acts, with the act numbers shown on the screen (the interlude is optional). Indeed, the film often feels like a series of small plots that don’t all relate to one another, with many non sequiturs. We’re presented with different aspects of what it means to be human, but delivered in a deadpan way, and detached from the very human things going on.
There’s a plot about grieving the loss of a loved one, and all that comes with it (denial and bargaining, primarily). There’s the loneliness of the children, smarter than all their peers but unable to connect with or act like normal children. There’s the romantic tension between a suicidal, unstable actress and a war photographer. There’s Jeff Goldblum being as Jeff Goldblum as possible while playing an extremely tall alien in a weird suit. There’s the juxtaposition of wholesome, ‘50s Americana against the paranoia, xenophobia and militarism of the Cold War.
Let Wes take you for a ride, and don’t try too hard to keep track of what’s going on. “Asteroid City” is a bizarre sequence of aesthetically pleasing, carefully arranged scenes that speak to the human and the inhuman, the earthly and the extraterrestrial. Fans of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) or even “oddly satisfying” videos on YouTube will rejoice. If you aren’t a fan of Wes Anderson already, maybe start with something a bit easier to get your head around – like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” - but if you’re already a fan of Wes, you’ll certainly be a fan of “Asteroid City.”