Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Even if someone has never seen any of Wes Anderson’s films, chances are they would still be able to describe what a Wes Anderson film looks, sounds and feels like. The director is practically a genre unto himself, as his films Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Isle of Dogs (2018), and The French Dispatch (2021) only share similarities with each other, and rarely any other films. With the signature blend of quirky dialogue, deadpan performances, massive ensembles, vibrant colours, fourth-wall breaks, occasional stop motion animation, meticulously composed framing and esoteric storytelling, you always know what you’re going to get stylistically speaking, yet at the same time you’re also unsure of what to expect narratively. This trend holds true with his latest offering, Asteroid City (2023).
The film opens to the host of a 1950s style show (Bryan Cranston), describing to us that the world and story we are about to see, called Asteroid City, is not real. It is in fact a fictional play, constructed by a famous playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Regardless, we are invited into Asteroid City, a retro-futuristic, 1950s desert town in which atomic bomb tests are routinely conducted. The town is currently hosting an astronomy convention for young science prodigies, given that the town is famous for an asteroid having cratered there once upon a time. The convention has brought many weird and wonderful people to Asteroid City, including war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), famous actor Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), primary teacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke), Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), The Motel Manager (Steve Carell), General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) and many more. Outside of the fictionalised Asteroid City is another host of characters, including director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), acting coach Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe) and unnamed actors played by Jeff Goldblum and Margot Robbie.
Given that Asteroid City ticks every single box in the Wes Anderson starter pack, it’s safe to say the film is catnip for his diehard fans. Anderson’s style has inspired a generation of film enthusiasts, film students and aspiring filmmakers, so it’s unlikely that Asteroid City would lose him any followers. Additionally, this makes it an exceptionally hard film to review, as all of the unique elements which make his films impressive are all here at the expected standard. The actors deliver impassive performances, spouting Anderson’s plentiful script, standing in richly designed sets while moving with his symmetrically specific direction. If you’ve seen one Wes Anderson film, you’ve seen all of them, so clearly it’s not only the stylistic choices that keeps his fans coming back. There is always something narratively and thematically compelling, hidden within his well worn directorial flourishes, so it’s from this perspective that Asteroid City has to be judged. Does the film offer anything beyond Anderson’s typical tricks? As with all of Anderson’s work, the answer is complicated.
Right from the word go, Asteroid City’s clearest narrative hook is tied to his common story themes, that being the characters reacting to a loved one passing, while also dealing with complicated emotions within the family dynamic. Therefore, you may be forgiven for not being particularly impressed by the film’s regurgitation of Anderson’s story tropes. This can be taken as both a positive and a negative, as the film is being cliched, while simultaneously using the cliches to be self-reflective. Namely, it almost feels like Anderson has become fully aware of his status as a pop culture icon, knowing exactly what people like about his films, what they make fun of and what they determine as a Wes Anderson trope. Thus, Asteroid City may very well be Anderson’s deliberate acknowledgement of his own commonalities.
This is most evident in how the film’s self-aware ideas are fed through its metatextual framing. Most of Anderson’s films break the fourth-wall, but rarely have they broken it as intensely as Asteroid City. The scenes implied to be reality are just as bizarre as the scenes implied to be fiction, arguably more so. As explained, we are watching a film, about a play, made by a theatre company, and the line between what is reality and what isn’t, is completely blurred. Also as discussed above, the events depicted have the viewer confront their own feelings about Anderson’s filmography and style. Therefore, the fourth wall-breaks and the blatantly overused Wes Anderson tropes, force the viewer into a place where it’s impossible for them to get lost in the story, as they are made keenly aware of the storytelling and filmmaking process. Granted, this makes Asteroid City Anderson’s least emotionally connective film, but it’s not without purpose.
So what is Wes Anderson saying exactly? What reason could he possibly have for intentionally breaking audience immersion? Some may feel that he is simply seeing what he can get away with, while others may feel like he’s trying to root out his detractors by being in on the jokes about him. That second option feels somewhat plausible, as Asteroid City occasionally comes across like a parody of a Wes Anderson film (which was all the rage on YouTube for a while). As such, it’s interesting that he’s risking alienating potential fans, where most of his other films still managed to gain new converts. However, once the viewer comes to terms with the frequent breaks in immersion, that in and of itself may create immersion, and also reveal Anderson’s intention. Specifically, Asteroid City is less a film, but more a public service announcement, as Anderson is asking audiences to stop trying to unravel his films, or films in general. The culture at large has become obsessed with finding plot holes, making sense of strange things, or applying hard and fast logic to art. With Asteroid City, It’s as if Anderson is pleading with the viewers ‘I know I do this a lot, but stop complaining, and just let me do it. Sit back, and enjoy the ride. You are literally ruining the ride for yourselves’.
This is not only exhibited through the metatextual framing of showing actors in a play, but is also inferred through the actions and feelings expressed by the characters in Asteroid City. These people are all trying to make sense of their purpose, their place in life, and (most importantly) the meaning of their life when confronted with strange, world changing events completely out of their control. Given the historically significant occurrences we’ve lived through the last few years, it makes sense that this idea is in Anderson’s head. Sure enough, Anderson is not only applying his “just roll with it” philosophy to art, but to life as well. From this lens, Asteroid City does exactly what we want from Wes Anderson: it delivers his signature style, while also giving something interesting to think about.
All that being said, the fact that Asteroid City goes out of its way to keep the viewer at arms length in order to make its point, still makes it a cold, distant and frustrating experience. Yes, that frustration immediately disappears as soon as the credits roll, as you’ll be flooded with all of the cerebral thinking. So the aftertaste is incredibly satisfying, but the immediate experience may not be tasty.
Best way to watch it: Well, the film itself wants you to just roll with it, so just roll with it.