You may have seen it on your TikTok or Youtube feeds: the “Wes Anderson-ification” of everything, where people’s daily routines are shot in perfectly-centered pastel colors and popular franchises are pushed through AI generators with twee names like “The Technological Traversements of Neo and Morphius.” It was funny, no doubt, watching one of America’s most distinctly offbeat directors become a household name, but the memes missed the other half of the Anderson equation, where the precise style is contrasted with a deep melancholy driven by broken, hubristic characters searching for redemption.
In his newest film, “Asteroid City,” one could fear that Anderson’s fully bought into his surface-level hype. After 2021’s intriguing-but-uneven “French Dispatch,” his stagelike miseen-scène and deadpan humor might have drowned out the emotional core he used to explore, leading to a movie that’s nice to hang on your wall yet uninteresting to actually watch. However, “Asteroid City” turns out to be his most philosophic, abstract work to date, as the film simultaneously reaffirms the style that everyone wants to copy and deconstruct makes it impossible to perfectly recreate. In short, it’s Anderson’s most challenging film, seemingly purpose built to drive away those who only find him as an excellent source for a Pinterest board. It might also be his best.
The main plot revolves around a ‘Junior Stargazer’ convention in the eponymous Asteroid City, a picturesque 1950’s desert town named after a prehistoric asteroid lying at its center. A group of young geniuses and their families have gathered to win a government scholarship for their various projects (demonstrated in a wonderfully styled montage, as expected). Leading the star-studded cast is the Steenbeck family; the father Augie (Jason Schwartzman) is reeling from the death of his wife (Margot Robbie), and must find a way to break the news to his genius son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three daughters, while also managing his relationship with his cold father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks). Along the way, both Augie and Woodrow become close to two more visitors, actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), respectively. We will also see the stories of others in town, such as the romance between a cowboy (Rupert Friend) and a schoolteacher (Maya Hawke) and the scene-stealing musings of an inept motel manager (Steve Carell).
It seems straightforward, but then everything changes when an alien (Jeff Goldblum) lands in the crater, steals the town’s namesake asteroid and leaves. Why did he take it? What does the existence of extraterrestrial life mean for humanity? “The meaning of life, maybe there is one!” says Woodrow, a born Episcopalian with an inclination towards rationalism. As the government locks down the town to quell the news flow and find out just what happened, a common existential crisis strikes every one of its residents, born and forced.
Here, Anderson takes his signature ensemble cast into new territories, using their daily routines and low-stakes scuffles to drive a more relaxed, ‘hangout’-genre plot than his previously zany affairs. It may not be as instantly enjoyable as his best, like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or “The Life Aquatic,” but this unique atmosphere lends itself well to the questions at hand; rather than fight scenes or slapstick humor, the best moments here are often simple conversations, shot with Anderson perfectionism while old country tunes echo quietly through the vast desert hills.
There’s a catch, though: the story is part of a television show about a stage play, whose creation and rehearsals are shown in black-and-white intermissions. Anderson has used this metatextual setup before, but it’s never influenced the storyline much until now. The personalities and drama of the actors find equivalents in the main story, critical plot points from the latter find context in the former and the show’s host (Bryan Cranston) seems to flow effortlessly through the storylines, even suddenly showing up in the main plot for one of its funniest gags.
It might sound pretentious, but it ends up proving its depth. The dread of the play is compounded by a similar dread in the play’s formation, as the frantic playwright (Edward Norton) searches for meaning in his own art, only to find that it has grown beyond his understanding. All of this leads to a climax that is at once bizarre and a masterful flex of storytelling, fully breaking the line between drama and reality and turning the film’s jokey existentialism into a moving statement on the transcendental power of human bonds.
Amidst all of his online imitators, “Asteroid City” is a lightning bolt of creativity for Wes Anderson, both unapologetic of his strengths and unafraid to experiment with them. You may be disappointed in its lack of straight answers, but if you hear it out, you’ll find that watching these characters live and fall in love is enough.