I can see why it’s easy to simplify Wes Anderson’s entire career to an aesthetic exercise; the director’s name is so synonymous with hyper-stylized sets and cinematography that it’s turned into an internet-wide parody. To me, what makes most of his movies so effective is not the visuals alone, but how the pastels and symmetry are coupled with deeply human explorations of family, the self and existentialism. While these thematic and formal obsessions find their way into his newest film, there’s also a kind of self-awareness at play that makes Asteroid City one of his most unique and entertaining offerings yet. During a space cadet convention held in a small desert town, a cast of characters struggles with respective demons while finding human connection and learning to make their lives mean something. While the trailer sets us up to expect the usual Anderson flick, I actually think it’s one of his most ambitious movies to date.
As far as the visuals go, you probably already know you’re in for a visual feast. The scenes are often awash in pastel colors that create an interesting tonal contrast with the topics at hand (death, existence, etc.). There’s also something to be said about how the costuming reflects the interiority of the characters, bringing viewers farther into their inner worlds; but what I noticed the most in Asteroid City is how slick the camerawork was. From smartly executed pans to zoom-ins that get our attention just where he needs it, it’s clear Anderson’s already lauded composition skills have reached new heights here. It’s also a clever way of showing how well conceived the set design is throughout the film. Initially, I wondered if Anderson’s style would translate as well in a desert setting as it did in something more grandiose like The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but it definitely does. There are even a few scenes that make phenomenal use of black and white. Despite all these visual strengths, though, what really impressed me here was the writing.
Sure, I think Anderson still struggles writing POC characters with as much depth and nuance as his white characters, and there are definitely a few moments where it feels a bit heavy handed in conveying its message, but overall, I think this is one of his best scripts ever. There’s a meta element throughout the film that introduces a running commentary on art and artifice, and I think the characters themselves have very rich interiorities that translate well onscreen. After an alien visits Asteroid City and the town is subsequently quarantined by the government, many are forced to face their biggest problems (often: themselves). It’s here where we really see Anderson’s writing take an interesting turn. As they search for some greater meaning in the wake of such a reality-shattering discovery, we’re told that there might not be one single meaning, but that it’s still important to live and create. This isn’t meant to dismiss valid criticism of film as a philosophical medium, though. The camera is constantly turned back on itself, breaking the fourth wall and showing that there are definitely limitations to artists and their work, but I wouldn’t say it’s a nihilistic or pessimistic film. The life-affirming element places Asteroid City less in the postmodern camp and more in the burgeoning meta-modern wave of films like Everything Everywhere All at Once. It also doesn’t hurt that the script was brought to life by one of the most stacked casts you’re likely to see this year.
With a bill that includes Hong Chau, Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe and more, it’s hard to go wrong as far as the acting is concerned. Between all these actors, Anderson was working with at least five Academy Award winners/nominees, and that caliber of performance helps add emotional gravity to a script that was so thought-provokingly philosophical it could’ve easily turned into an overly-heady mess. The line deliveries are exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie as far as pacing is concerned, but there’s a great variation with each character. Jason Schwartzman does a phenomenal job playing Augie Steenbeck, a brooding, emotionally unavailable father, and Maya Hawke is fantastic as June Douglas, an overwhelmed elementary teacher.
Despite each character desperately searching for the meaning of life, audiences don’t come away with a clear answer, and I think that’s the point. In one scene, Augie says he doesn’t even know what the hell this play’s about, and his co-star tells him no one does, but it’s important for the show to go on regardless. In lines like this, we know exactly what Wes Anderson has to say about life, love, and infinity. Asteroid City is now in theaters, and it’s probably my favorite movie to come out (so far) this year. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!