Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s melancholic ode to the atomic age

4 out of 5 stars

As a filmmaker, Wes Anderson’s aesthetic, which uses symmetry, tableau-style framing and long takes, translates legibly to a general audience as a distinct style. Often imitated and rarely replicated, Anderson’s ubiquity in the culture — including a massively popular TikTok trend — often misses that he’s more than just style over substance. They forget that in utilizing artifice and retro-stylings, Anderson can embrace, through form, ideas and emotions that are difficult to be tackled head-on.

His latest film, Asteroid City, features many of Anderson’s familiar motifs, including a preference for meta-textual narratives. Like a Russian doll, the film’s structure targets stories within stories; it’s about actors putting on a play about an alien spaceship landing in Asteroid City, a remote desert town hosting a conference for young astronomers. The film has no traditional protagonist and instead follows the dual lives of a handful of characters — both actors and crew putting on a play and the characters they portray on stage. The behind-the-scenes are all shot in black and white, whereas the play within the film is in startling pastel-toned colour. 

Though not explicitly set in a specific period, the movie draws on the themes of the early atomic age and the emergence of method acting as its motif. Anderson uses nostalgia to establish the norms of a society that we imagine as hopeful and naive but are sophisticated in their modes of repression. Dialogue is often very frank and vulnerable, whereas performance styles air on the side of restraint. The coldness of delivery, rather than revealing a kind of stoicism, shows characters unable to cope with the overwhelming weight of being alive.

new movies June Asteroid City

Grief plays a large part in Asteroid City. A fictional father and photographer, played by Jason Schwartzman, finds himself stranded in a desert town. His son, a genius, is there to present his revolutionary invention. With three witchy sisters in tow, the father must also find a way to tell his brood that their mother, who has been undergoing treatment for an undisclosed illness, has passed away. 

There are similar layers of grief to the other stories, a sense that, despite our enormous yearning for connection, it’s only in fleeting moments that we can establish a genuine connection with someone. Throughout a lifetime, we might only ever truly have a handful of profound, meaningful experiences. Not only does this apply to interpersonal relationships but cultural, social and political ones as well. The ability to break down the walls to break away from an individualized experience of the world is increasingly unforgiving. 

The backdrop of the playwright and the attempt to put his words to the stage highlight in broad strokes one attempt to create a meaningful connection. Adopting the aesthetics of a movement we’ve come to associate with the early American Actor’s Studio, we understand a methodology of performance built on authenticity. Anderson may not deconstruct the values of this system, but he doesn’t have to. In complicating the actor’s role within this world, he highlights the magic of creation by having the performers have rich and complex personal lives, weighed down by the enormous strain of yearning and how the brief moments of ecstasy we experience as an audience are miraculous.

Asteroid City draws on themes and imagery that saw profound hope in a future that never came to be. Though the ingenuity of plastics and atomic energy offered what we now see as false hopes, the melancholy of those false dreams similarly weighs heavily on the film. Rather than nostalgia, though, Anderson subverts the romanticization of a simpler time by highlighting the fragility of our dreams and the intangibility of all human connections. It’s not that we failed a previous era, but that their aspirations were misguided to begin with. They aren’t worthy of scorn, however, but instead reflect the paradox of the human condition, trying to escape death by establishing a legacy while avoiding the very real connections that make life worth living. 

At its best, Asteroid City is a lush and painful film. Scarlett Johansson has never been more radiant, and Jason Schwartzman more wounded and adult — the film’s desert locales brim with inspiration, including a wily roadrunner. Your mileage may vary depending on how burned out you are on Anderson, but there’s undeniably a kind of alchemy to his marriage of style and emotion. His movies may not necessarily be hopeful, but they capture a deeply rooted desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves. ■

Asteroid City (directed by Wes Anderson)

Asteroid City opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 23.

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