/ 10 June 2023

Wes Anderson’s new film ‘Asteroid City’ is out of this world

Asteroid City (2023)
Star-studded: A scene from Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’, which has his signature pastel palette and array of subplots and characters

The latest film from quirky, pastel-palette-loving director Wes Anderson, Asteroid City, tells a story of ambitious space exploration but makes it eccentric and elegant, yet cerebral. 

After the out-of-this-world reception of Asteroid City’s premiere during the Cannes Film Festival last month, the mind-bending tale is one to watch.

There are both familiar faces — such as Jason Schwartzman, Jeffrey Wright and Jeff Goldblum — and newcomers to the Wes Anderson cinematic universe, such as Steve Carell, Maya Hawke and Margot Robbie. 

In the film, Anderson’s menagerie of characters descends on the small desert town of Asteroid City, with a population of exactly 83 people, where strange events surround the 1995 Junior Stargazer Convention. 

Junior space cadets

It is Asteroid Day in 1955 when the desert townspeople commemorate the day a giant comet, the “Meteoric Space Ore” (now considered a rogue pygmy “cometette”), hit Earth’s surface circa 5 000 years prior, leaving a massive crater. 

But, at the same time, Asteroid City plays host to parents and their unusual stargazing children, cowboys, an actress and an alien, for a stargazing competition.

Among the dysfunctional parents, competitive stargazing children and scholars in Asteroid City, two characters are standouts. There’s newly widowed Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzman) who brings his three children to the town, however, they do not know that their mother has died. 

Famous actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her young genius daughter have also come to town hoping to win a science scholarship from the absurd Dr  Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton). 

But chaos ensues after the arrival of aliens.

Anderson’s eye for symmetry, irony, many subplots and subtle oddities is on full display in Asteroid City. But, this time, the pastel palette is much flatter than in his other films, which should in theory make the movie seem dull but instead helps audiences feel the dry desert heat. 

Every scene feels like its own indulgent diorama, which plays into the film’s meta vibe, since it is actually a play produced by Adrien Brody’s character.

The subplots and the massive cast can be confusing and overwhelming for audiences who are not familiar with the formula of Anderson’s previous films, such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch, both of which also have  multilayered plots. 

Perhaps Asteroid City does not allow audiences to fully realise the complexity of each character throughout the constant back-and-forth between scenes. Yet, allowing the mind of the viewer to extend beyond the film’s runtime is a signature Anderson move, which we see in the social media trend of Anderson-style content sweeping our timelines. 

Asteroid City is an imaginary drama created expressly for the purposes of a broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events are an apocryphal fabrication. In other words, we are watching a movie about a play within a play and that takes place during a television broadcast.

Yet underneath the plot of a friendly alien’s beeps and boops, government intervention and “junior stargazers and space cadets”, Asteroid City is a story designed to pull on heartstrings through its themes of grief, existential melancholy and complicated family dynamics. 

Throughout Anderson’s catalogue of films (Asteroid City included), he shows us that the film is made for the family man, the artist, the romantic and the student.

Asteroid City refers to a post-World War II America, where optimism was a survival tactic. 

In the 1950s, the cosmos was largely unexplored and today, more than 70 years later, remains confusing, widely unknown and mysterious. But Anderson’s symmetrical aesthetic feeds into our human desire to understand and organise things, including something as infinite as the universe beyond our own solar system.

In Asteroid City, things can get a little infuriating for audiences, who simply have to sit back and watch events unfold. The characters don’t get what they initially think they want, folk are plagued by the need to grow up when there is still time to be young and, consequently, suppress their own child-like wonder, (but that’s where Anderson’s writing comes in). 

The different emotions of the many characters and tonal conflicts crescendo for an over-arching theme — we are all children in adults’ clothing.

Asteroid City premieres in theatres on 16 June.