It seems fitting that Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s first film that he directed since the beginning of the pandemic (The French Dispatch was filmed prior). In many ways, he’s crafted a movie about grief and trying to find meaning in a world that often feels chaotic and unpredictable. All of which happens under the guise of a play within a film where aliens play a center part (or do they?). As with all of Anderson’s films there’s much to unpack, even if the lines between reality and fantasy have blurred further than ever.
The film opens with a black-and-white sequence (in a 4:3 ratio!) narrated by Bryan Cranston, who introduces us to the characters and the story we are about to see. Anderson’s films have always employed a stage-like craft and visual language, so it’s not shocking to learn this framing device also reveals that Asteroid City is, in fact, a play written by the Tennessee Williams-esque playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), and that all the characters we’ve been introduced to so far are really actors.
The film then cuts to the opening of the play, set in a retro-futuristic 1955. Augie (Jason Schwartzman), his teenage son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and his three daughters, are on their way to the Junior Stargazer convention in Asteroid City when their car breaks down. As Augie reaches out to his father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), for a ride, he also struggles with the fact that he hasn’t told his children yet that their mother has died.
The play’s main plot unfolds as the Junior Stargazers come face to face with a peaceful, albeit playful alien during their award ceremony. This alien presence, portrayed by the perfectly cast Jeff Goldblum, leads to the government quarantining the town. Asteroid City transforms into a tourist attraction for alien enthusiasts, and the Junior Stargazers and their families undergo extensive questioning.
Throughout the film, we see various characters grapple with grief, confusion, and the search for meaning. Augie struggles with the death of his wife. Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), a scientist working at the local observatory, wonders aloud, “I never had children. Sometimes I wonder if I wish I should’ve.” Even the actress playing Augie’s wife (Margot Robbie), whose scenes were ultimately cut from the play, contemplates the possibilities and ponders her reason for being and the meaning of existence.
At its center is a film about learning to move past grief and accept that some things simply hold no real meaning, even though we want them to. Towards the end is a line that encapsulates this idea well: “You can’t wake up if you don’t go to sleep.” That if we never face our grief head-on and learn to accept it, we’ll never be able to move beyond it. This is true in the film, and it’s true in real life.
While Asteroid City might be one of Wes Anderson’s best-looking films – and possibly one of his most existential – I’m not sure how much audiences will understand it at face value. After leaving the theater, even I had a hard time digesting what I had just seen as there was a lot to take in for one setting. And though I usually find Anderson’s films to be the ultimate cinematic eye candy, I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to watch this one again any time soon.