To the Stars

Asteroid City (2023)

Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY
illustration by Brianna Ashby

Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s eleventh feature film, a dense and whirling picture—a play within a film within a film—joining the director’s ten other features (including two animated works) and a handful of shorts. Asteroid City also joins the company of myriad imitators and parodies and AI configurations that have attempted and failed—flopping, even—to express all that the director himself is able to fit into a frame. Asteroid City is a cool cocktail: The French Dispatch’s meta-textual structure, Isle of Dogs and The Fantastic Mr. Fox’s stop-motion animation, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited’s detached sense of grief, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’s sense of adventure, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel’s interrogation of our recent past, and Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman. I’m sure there is some Bottle Rocket in there too; I just haven’t seen that one yet. All of which is to say, Asteroid City begs the question: what is a Wes Anderson movie? (And a second question: why do we keep coming back to them?)

Asteroid City is the story of parents and children, of space and God, of the enduring tyranny of the United States government and the ways in which its ever-grasping paws clutch at all that we hold dear. It’s an apocalypse film with no apocalypse but that on the horizon. Anderson opens his film not with the Technicolor desert plains promised in its trailer, but instead in a black-and-white television studio, with the host (Bryan Cranston) of a public broadcasting program eager to divulge the story of a fake play for the purposes of educating a general crowd on how, exactly, a big stage show might get made.

The host introduces a cadre of stylish actors set to play their parts in “Asteroid City,” the fictional play in question. Though the host warns us that the Asteroid City within “Asteroid City” is not real—and though the Asteroid City within Asteroid City is full of Looney Tunes-style backdrops and highly saturated colors—it is still the most felt and lived-in setting Anderson has depicted as of late. A motel, a diner, a mechanic, a research center, a little highway turn-off that leads nowhere—when the sign says “Population: 87,” it’s not kidding.

The not-real Asteroid City is flooded with not-real people attending an annual gathering for gifted youth—children in STEM, so to speak—whose passions and interests and schooling have led them to find all things extraterrestrial more grounding and compelling than what lies in front of them. This includes Woodrow (Jake Ryan), son of Augie (Jason Schwartzman); Dinah (Grace Edwards), daughter of Midge (Scarlett Johansson); Clifford (Aristou Meehan), son of J.J. (Liev Schrieber); Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee), son of Roger; and Shelly (Sophia Lillis), daughter of Sandy (Hope Davis). The families are ushered to and fro by the hotel manager (Steve Carell—in the key of Michael Scott), Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright). There are other characters who flit in and out—a doe-eyed school teacher (Maya Hawke) being wooed by a be-denimed cowboy named Montana (Rupert Friend)––but at the heart of Asteroid City, and Asteroid City, are the families.

There’s a lot to work through in Asteroid City: not only are the junior stargazers and space cadets there to indulge their hobbies, they are also being rewarded for their individual achievements in innovation and invention, with the United States government standing at the podium, handing out trinkets and baubles for technologies ranging from the baseline capitalistic evil (Woodrow’s holographic display can put any symbol—including the American flag—on the moon) to the wretchedly violent (Clifford’s ray gun dissolves objects on contact). It’s not that the children of Asteroid City are deliberately malicious or psychopathic in their inventions: it’s clear from the amount of time we spend with them in the film that their warm, awkward affection for each other manifests as both platonic and lightly romantic. It’s not their fault that their intellect is used against them from the start. They are pawns of the government—which is not immediately apparent to them, but it certainly is to the woebegotten, exhausted parents who linger by the martini machine near the outdoor showers.

There is another matter being dealt with in Asteroid City, and Asteroid City, which is that of grief. Woodrow’s mother—also the mother of his three scene-stealing sisters—passed away a few weeks prior, and his father Augie has only just now built up the courage to tell his children. His father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks—yay), is en route to pick them up, and they plan to spend an indefinite period of time out in California, mourning, perhaps, or just letting time pass them by. Augie, a war photographer by trade, is—in a word—shell-shocked. He is distant and distracted, neither a good parent nor a good son-in-law, driven to depression and disillusionment. Schwartzman here is uncharacteristically opaque and disaffected, willing to show off the shrapnel wound on the back of his head but incapable of expressing any kind of empathy towards his children. When forced to comfort them, he asks them what they want to eat more than anything in the world. That’s as close as he can get.

If this all sounds dense and complex, that’s in part because it is, but the snags and intricacies of Asteroid City have the benefit of existing inside its framing device. The mechanism of the televised special about the play allows its characters, in the form of actors, to ask questions of the creators—playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody—[Borat voice] wa wa wee wa). It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to step out of the confining nature of a life in supersaturation to ask God a question, to cross the stage and know how to stand, what to say, how to feel. “Are we alone in the universe?” is less a question of intergalactic diplomacy and more a question of “Has anyone else figured it all out yet?”

A number of films have tried, with mixed success, to grasp at the mysteries of life, the infinite possibilities of the stars. Most, if not all, of these movies—especially the ones of recent memory—reckon, too, with grief: a father burying his daughter in First Man, a son drifting across galaxies for closure in Ad Astra, a ghost and a black hole warping inside each other in Interstellar, the deus-ex-camera of Nope. The characters in Asteroid City have obviously not seen these movies, on account of being fictional and also existing in a fictional past. Their purpose is much less clear, their futures much foggier. Their ennui does not alienate them (pun intended) nor does the increased government oversight, the ever-menacing wielding of machine guns, or quarantine. It is easy, in turn, to read Asteroid City not in the context of its UFO-obsessed peers but as an arch metaphor for COVID and perhaps a larger criticism of Anderson’s work, mistakenly characterized as fitful fantasy in lieu of “the real world.”

I consider myself no devout follower of Anderson’s work. Perhaps this means I am a more discerning judge, free of preconceived biases; perhaps this means that the way the light looks different every day proves I can never trust my own eyesight. Critics of the filmmaker love to draw attention to his fastidious production design, fetishizing the lives of the rich and unfeeling, their upper-class ennui subject for melancholy farce. Though always infused with a touch of absurdity, these lives are in no way enviable. They are stilted and suffering, and only through hyper-stylization are their plights remotely watchable. Where Asteroid City shines, where it is made masterpiece, is in its brief flashes of joy: a good picture, a milkshake, a song and dance, one more martini. Here is a life not perfect—soldiers wielding guns, no personal space, endless boredom—made enviable by one thing only: each other.

I consider only one other movie Asteroid City’s peer: M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, a hyper-stylized absurdist take on quarantine and government skepticism. Like Anderson, Shyamalan gets hit with the “that’s not what life is like” or “that’s not what people sound like” criticisms by people with small imaginations and big mouths. Both films present a scenario so otherworldly—sometimes literally—and existentially terrifying that it demands a stylization, an indent away from reality. Were it not for Shyamalan’s didactic math problem dialogue, the situation at hand—not just “what if a beach made you old?” but “what if you lived your body’s whole life in a day?”—is too scary to reckon with in a literal sense. Anderson’s reality, on the other hand, is too sad: four children without their mother, a suicidal actress, unhappy teens and unhappy adults, forced to think of how to market the moon. It would all be too unbearable were it not for its undeniable charisma, its super-reality.

The over-referenced Joan Didion line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is often ascribed to the notion of narrativizing the random nature of life, but what is ignored in that aphorism, perhaps, is that we also tell ourselves stories in order to pass the time, because most of living is passing time. Asteroid City is about a week in the lives of people who will likely never see each other again, whose impact craters the surface of the heart. For a second, their lives were made simple. They had nothing to do. They had only each other. In Asteroid City and Asteroid City, all they had to do was pass the time.