Asteroid City (2023), Wes Anderson’s latest film, debuted in May this year at the 76th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. A month later, in late June 2023, the film was given a wide release, grossing $49 million in box office sales.
The film, set in 1955 America, follows recent widower Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), his teen son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and his three young daughters, all of whom he’s yet to break the news to regarding their mother’s death. On the way to visit Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), the family car breaks down in an American desert town that is soon to be filled by people for the Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet Convention. As the wacky characters pile into the bare-bones town, including a school bus of children and their teacher (Maya Hawke), famous actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter (Grace Edwards), the town’s Motel Manager (Steve Carell), and an assortment of pre-teen wizz kids, an alien touches down to earth, shocking all and alerting the U.S. government. Late into the film, the lens by which we have viewed this story is pulled back further, revealing a story-within-a-story, and challenging the audience to view the plot, and the stakes it has created, in an altogether different way.
Though the story-within-a-story aspect of this film was fresh and pulled off in a creative way, the actual story that takes place in the “asteroid city” was a bit all over the place and scattered. Including an abundance of subplots and unique relationship dynamics is a recent Wes Anderson calling card, especially fresh off of The French Dispatch (2021), but Asteroid City failed to connect these plots with congruent themes. Various plots were also rushed for time, such as the relationship between school teacher, June (Maya Hawke), and Montana (Rupert Friend), and as a result, the payoff of these stories was absent.
However, the film also challenged a common tenet of Wes Anderson’s visual style, in terms of the physical location and size of this film. After the town is visited by the alien, the U.S. government requires all the members to remain within the small town in a quarantine-like investigation. Because of this, the majority of the story is kept within the confines of the small American desert town, which forces the excitement of the film to stay within the character dynamics and small-scale production design, instead of in the grand location and set design, as has been the case with many past Anderson films, especially the Oscar-winning The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Also known for his highly unique and often socially inept characters, Anderson did not disappoint this time around, introducing a variety of new characters to play out this story. However, the most interesting and memorable group of characters, the five pre-teen science wizzes, were reminiscent of the characters of past Wes Anderson films Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and Rushmore (1998). Awkward and mentally mature beyond their years, but still with many social skills to learn, these characters are easy to laugh at and identify with, as most of any audience experienced a version of the awkward pre-teen years. Wes Anderson is especially skilled at bringing in a painfully awkward yet exciting romance between the pre-teen characters, in Asteroid City’s case, between pre-teens Woodrow (Ryan) and Dinah (Edwards).
“They’re strange, aren’t they? Your children. Compared to normal people.” – Steve Carell as Motel Manager in Asteroid City (2023)
Jake Ryan, the 19-year-old actor who played Woodrow Steenbeck, acted alongside an impressive array of household names but ultimately stole the show with his clumsy charm. Ryan was featured in Moonrise Kingdom in 2012 as a Khaki Scout and later took on his most noteworthy role as Gabe in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018). In Asteroid City, Ryan’s character experiences an alien sighting, an innocent romance, and a government investigation, and is forced to confront something that he suspected: the death of his mother. The abundance of internal conflicts is well-represented by Ryan’s acting, both in his facial expressions and his perfect timing of nervous, uncomfortable movements.
Another noteworthy and comical character was that of The Alien, briefly played by Jeff Goldblum. Especially in a time when UFOs and extraterrestrial life are topical and threatening subjects, Anderson’s depiction of the alien made the elusive less scary.
Wes Anderson’s filmography features scores from composer Alexandre Desplat, who is highly skilled at capturing the heart and meek eccentricity of the characters in Anderson’s films. This film also features a score by Desplat which accurately frames the quiet, hesitant encounters in the movie, especially when The Alien visits the earth. Other songs important to the film are “Last Train to San Fernando” by Johnny Duncan & The Blue Grass Boys, which has become somewhat of the film’s theme due to its appearance in the trailer, as well as “Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven)” by the Asteroid City Cast.
Asteroid City’s location presented a specific visual style challenge to Wes Anderson, as he has never set a movie in a mid-1900s desert town. Well known for his color schemes, Anderson pulled bright turquoise blues from the cloud-free desert skies, reddish tans from the all-encompassing desert sands, and in between the two, constructed a town built of creamy white buildings. The film did not create a visual style as beautiful nor as memorable as more visually iconic Anderson films such as Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) or Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) but was still aesthetic and unique in its own way.
The meaning behind this film is a bit unclear, as are some of the mechanics behind the story-within-a-story aspect of the film. The plots introduce themes of grief, exploration, budding love, and fear, but lack one coherent message or theme to leave the audience with. But as the film nears the end, Jason Schwartzman’s second character admits to Adrien Brody’s character that he is, in fact, confused with the story as well. Conflicted behind the stage of a playhouse, he admits, “I still don’t understand the play.” Adrien Brody responds to him, similar to how Wes Anderson may answer the question to those confused about the movie, “That doesn’t matter. Just keep on telling the story.”
“I still don’t understand the play.” – Jason Schwartzman as Jones Hall in Asteroid City (2023)
If anyone is a personified version of this message, it’s Wes Anderson himself, as he’s been releasing movies at a rather quick rate recently, and sticking to the story and style that he wants to tell. His next release, a short film based on a Roald Dahl story called The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023), will be released on Netflix on September 27th of this year.
Score: 3 out of 5