Humans strive to make sense of the nonsensical. People fall in and out of love. Lives are found, and lives are lost. Plans are carefully made and are attempted to be executed until life throws unexpected curve balls, deeming adjustment necessary for survival.
Life’s journey is unpredictable and often illogical. Nevertheless, humans have tried to find meaning and purpose to the randomness. With Asteroid City, director Wes Anderson explores these musings while posing a different question of his own. Does any of it really matter, and what can we do about it, if anything at all?
Within the framework of the film, Asteroid City is a play. At the start of Asteroid City, the film, a narrator (Bryan Cranston) introduces a television show staging a play about the creation of another play, Asteroid City. Audiences are briefed about the veracity of what they are about to experience all whilst screenwriter Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) types furiously away.
The black and white introduction reverberates Twilight Zone tones. It makes way to the contrast offered by a pastel-infused set, a familiar aesthetic for Anderson connoisseurs. Here, in the brightly colored Asteroid City, beautifully put together by production designer Adam Stockhausen, is where the play within the play takes place.
Asteroid City (population 87) is a sleepy and incomplete town, as can be seen by a ramp that even when or if completed, looks like it leads to nowhere. A group of strangers along with their scientifically adept children intersect at this town for a star-gazing event. While there, the kinder geniuses will also demonstrate their scientific inventions to the US military. Ray guns are blasted, jet packs take-off, and awards are bestowed. Later, during the star gazing event, an out-of-this-world wrench is thrown into the multiple gears that have been at play so far, forcing the temporary inhabitants into quarantine.
Anderson’s brand of quirk and deadpan is on full display here. However, with Asteroid City, he has delivered his most existential film to date. Different contemplations are explored, all meticulously layered. Each layer adds more depth, eventually resulting in a product that the actors of Asteroid City themselves find difficult to comprehend.
Reflections on love, death, purpose, and ultimately grief abound in between both plays. They are threaded, resulting in an existential crisis for all who experience it. The cast of characters tries to make sense of their unique situations. Some are relatable, while others are not. In any case, the forced lockdown gives them time to contemplate their circumstances.
It is difficult to imagine Asteroid City existing in its current form prior to our pandemic. Aside from the obvious reference to the lockdown, Anderson’s characters all feel a sense of helplessness and loneliness. These feelings are compounded by having nothing much of anything else to do except ponder about existential threats. Undoubtedly it is a relatable experience for many during that terrible 2020.
Back in the black-and-white setting, art imitates life. Audiences see how and where Earp gets his inspiration. Different characters face similar conundrums as their theatrical counterparts, all logical and illogical at once. But it is what it is. Or at least that is where Anderson leaves it. Earp eventually falls into a lull, unable to figure out the finishing touches of his play. With the help of the play’s director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and acting teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Defoe), a method acting exercise with his cast is his hope of finding the answers. However, sometimes, there just isn’t one.
Where does it all head? Much like the incomplete ramp, seemingly nowhere. Because why does it matter if choices we believe we have, are often illusionary is what Anderson hints at. There is one choice, and that is to just keep going until the road ends. It does not matter if we lack the understanding that we believe is necessary.
Anderson has assembled a superhero cast of familiar faces to his works. The mega ensemble is led by Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johannson playing Augie Steenbeck and Midge Campbell (modeled after Marylin Monroe) respectively. The story centers around their specific hardships and how they find comfort in each other’s forced company. Their children Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Dinah (Grace Edwards) find what their parents have lost in each other as well. The rest of the cast is a who’s who of recurring Anderson collaborators (where’s Bill Murray?). While it is amusing to watch so much talent, the overall feeling is that most are given very little to do during the film’s relatively short run time. In their Anderson debuts, Tom Hanks as Augie’s father-in-law and Maya Hawke as schoolteacher June are vastly underused.
Asteroid City stops short of offering a definitive answer on how to handle grief. The film humbly gives homage to different disciplines that may be used as outlets for solace. Theater, photography, science, and acting help bear the weight of the characters’ troubles. There is not one answer for finding reprieve, one must go through the motions. The unique situation in Asteroid City gives the characters no choice but to settle in with their sadness. Eventually, quarantine lifts, allowing them to continue their path. Hopefully, clarity has been discovered, although it is not necessary. After all, you can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.