Asteroid City

      Comments Off on Asteroid City

Wes Anderson continues to explore the synthesis between high camp visuals and dead pan existentialism with a flare for miniature photography and jukebox scores in the science fiction film Asteroid City (2023). The film is a love letter to the science fiction B-Movies of the fifties, Howdy Doody, the atomic arms race, and early television programming like Playhouse 90. Amid this mid-twentieth century cultural debris Anderson locates and examines the artifice of popular entertainment and attempts to define his own style.

Asteroid City is as much an examination of the intertextual discourse between iconic forms of fifties era media as it is of Anderson’s own varied oeuvre. The plot of the film functions as a quasi-greatest hits of moments culled from through out his career. The locomotive motif as a symbol of grief is reprised from The Darjeeling Limited (2007); Schwarztman’s apathetic photographer and his relationship with his children and father-in-law harkens back to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); the competing child scientists recall both Rushmore (1998) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012); the cartoon-like roadrunner is akin to the exotic fish of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004); while the framing device continues the semi-reflexive impulse of The French Dispatch (2021).

Asteroid City is Anderson’s most plastic drama to date but also his most personal film in many ways. The scene in which Scarlett Johansson rehearses a shower scene with Schwartzman a window away is perhaps the most revealing scene in the movie. Schwartzman’s performance is classic Anderson in that emotions are indicated with gestures, visual cues, and a frank, deadpan delivery. By contrast, the artificial performance within a performance that Johansson is engaging in is rich with deep emotive powers. It’s a juxtaposition of stylized performance with dramatic performance. This dichotomy of dueling aesthetics is the point of Asteroid City.

Asteroid City is a film about an imagined playwright’s play executed as a film within a television special whose single purpose is to meditate on the many ways that human beings employ plastic tactics (performance, ritual, music, photography) to safely express emotional vulnerability. What seems like negation is often times merely an all too subtle revelation couched within a broader gesture intended as misdirection. The differing acting styles adopted by performers in Asteroid City clearly suggests this but so does the intentionally fragmented narrative wherein the reflexive structure of the film intervene’s with the spectator’s expectations of a linearly based understanding of character and narrative arcs.

Asteroid City celebrates all of Anderson’s iconic fetishes while simultaneously subverting them. Anderson’s film consistently denies expectations in favor of an autocritique. The motivation behind this post-modernist reimagining of the art house cinema’s most commercial and popular auteur is seemingly to atone and be held accountable for the many criticisms heaped onto his films over the last decade or so. Anderson seems determined to prove that what looks like style over substance is really a covert confrontation with an uncomfortable emotional reality. Similarly, Asteroid City attempts to correct issues of racial and sexual inclusivity in a more overtly superficial way.

The tokenism of characters of color and a kiss between two men in Asteroid City is indicative of just how deeply Anderson is willing to delve into the nature of his own insecurities as suggested by the many highly stylized forms of his films. All Anderson seems to be comfortable with is the suggestion that there is more to his body of work than symmetrical images or catchy needle drops. Despite the above description, Asteroid City is not the work of an artist entering his Godardian phase, nor is it a disassembly of one of the most highly codified visual lexicons of the twenty-first century cinema. Asteroid City teases at depth but never pays off. Instead, Anderson retreats back into his comfort zone of cutesy images populated with big name stars.