By Bradley Lane
Wes Anderson is one of the most identifiable film directors of all time. His films adhere tightly to a very idiosyncratic set of aesthetic and tonal markers. Symmetrical framing, insert shots, pastel color palettes, familial drama, offbeat dialogue and many more trademarks mean that after seeing just a couple of his films, most audiences can immediately recognize his work. A common criticism of his recent output is that he relies on these trademarks as a sort of crutch, and while I don’t agree with this idea, it seems that Anderson was considering this when crafting his newest film, Asteroid City. What results is an emotionally stripped-down story that feels less sure of itself as Anderson comes to terms with his own grief, the nature of filmmaking in a profit-driven culture, and the existential meaning of storytelling.
Framed as a television broadcast, the film oscillates between a reenactment of a fictional play, Asteroid City, and a behind-the-scenes look of its troubled creation. The play is realized in cinematic language that leans into Anderson’s visual trademarks, whereas the broadcast portion is shot in stark black and white. The play follows a group of families in the remote town of Asteroid City gathered together for a science fair for gifted children who soon become trapped in each other’s company following a chance encounter with an extraterrestrial power.
The story within the confines of the play represents a return to more grounded drama for Anderson compared to the bombastic fast-paced plots of his newer films. However, the drama in the story seems to be almost intentionally downplayed, creating a tone soaked in quiet and slightly bitter existential malaise. Anderson is also playing with the boundaries of his own story in a thoughtful and interesting fashion. The television broadcast sections carefully clue audience members into the subtext of the play as well as the character dynamics of the actors, writer and director that manifest themselves in the finished work.
As I am sure you can tell, Asteroid City is a complicated film, one that left me with a lot to think about long after the film had ended. Curiously, the longer I sit with the text of the film, the more impressed I am with the intricate thematic complexities of its script. I think Asteroid City is well worth seeking out as I imagine audiences interpretations will vary widely and this type of film is perfect for kick starting thoughtful and interesting discourse among filmgoers. Asteroid City is currently available to stream on Peacock. – 3.5/5 stars