Asteroid City: The Meaning of Quirkiness

In many ways, Asteroid City feels like a direct clapback to the A.I generated still-life of Wes Anderson’s style. Anderson reveals in his new film that it’s a lot more complicated than that and he wrestles with very real human questions that an A.I would never bother to ask. The film has meta-layers with a story that focuses on the range of people that Anderson has always shown an interest in: geniuses, actors, writers, grieving parents, self aware kids, and the forces that seem to trap them.

Set circa 1955, Asteroid City begins with the Junior Stargazers as they arrive for the Junior Stargazer Convention along with their parents who are uniquely peculiar individuals. First is Woodrow (Jake Ryan) who, being too smart for his own good, has dragged his father Auggie (Jason Schwartzman) and his three sisters to the desert to prove his genius. But then, he meets whose mother Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) is using their trip to prepare for her performance in her new film. Being that her character is going through mental anguish, it seems that her antics drive her to a similar depression that blurs the lines between Midge and her character. This fascinates Auggie and the two of them soon find themselves talking through the windows of their tiny, desert cabins where they find themselves stuck after aliens interrupt the awards presentation for the junior stargazers. Subsequently, the government locks down the town’s population of 87 people and leaves the travelling families stranded as the deal what’s happening around them.

As always, Anderson’s technical precision is fully on display. He uses his stuffed frames of words, labels and people that often function as background jokes. These are probably some of his funniest moments and they’re uniquely his own brand of comedy. I could find it quite likely that some people might see his jokes as annoying uses of meta-commentary and that it has lines that simply pad the film’s lack of ability to communicate clearly. However, I think anyone with an intimate knowledge of Anderson’s work could see the hilarity in how much he mocks his own bland brand of comedy.

The production design and cinematography are always cohesive as Anderson’s DP Robert Yeoman allows his work to fade into the background. This is his humble brilliance. As he knows Anderson relies and puts so much work on his sets, he simply takes the honour of capturing them exactly as Anderson wants. Whether that’s through both subtle and grand long takes that explore the thoroughness the art department put into each part of the set, essentially creating a whole new world where we can’t see where the story ends and our world begins. While most of his work in Asteroid City recognizes its own function as decorations of a larger story, Anderson uses those as part of his jokes, incorporating obvious miniatures, special effects, and stop-motion elements to give us a unique storybook filled with fascinating and often hilarious characters. 

The music is always great as always, as well. I can’t say that, if you thought Anderson’s music was annoying before, you’d like it now but Desplat made a great score and the music always adds to the experience of Asteroid City.

What seems to perplex a lot of people (including myself) is the deeper emotional meaning of Asteroid City. Some find his more insightful and pondering scenes where characters almost directly question the meaning of life appear to be quite shallow. These characters simply get you to think about the meaning of life instead of providing an interesting and profound take on it. Really, what I think Wes is doing is trying to comment on how flippant it can be to believe movies and that storytelling should hold that kind of power. Or that, more importantly, the act of telling a story is as profound as the real-life interactions we have.

Asteroid City looks at the quirks and flaws of the people who tell stories, how they can fall apart or perhaps cut their ‘best scene’. What Wes means behind that is certainly up to interpretation and I doubt he’ll ever explain it. What I can say for now is that he loves how stories can make you think differently, to change your perspective and humor you with the most specific qualities and vocabulary. It’s something he constantly uses to get you to laugh with the film and, considering how much he keeps doubling down on some of his stylistic choices that would make no sense in any other film, I think he’s in on the joke. He uses his excessive art style and direction to make the film funny but still never forsakes telling an engaging story.

(L to R) Jason Schwartzman stars as “Augie Steenbeck” and Scarlett Johansson stars as “Midge Campbell” in Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Though he presents it in a most convoluted way, Asteroid City is really about living our own lives. Clearly, for Anderson, that means writing, directing and coming up with new ways to tell his stories. Yet he also acknowledges that, for the rest of us, it just means to keep doing it as best as we can. In many ways, there is the insinuation that Anderson has given up trying to figure out the world. (One of his character Woodrow says as much when he states, “I don’t believe in God anymore”.) Anderson constantly brings up the idea of a greater meaning through his characters and presents the idea that the image of who we want to be influences us. Then from there, even if we don’t understand the world or what the greater meaning may be, we continue to live the best way we can.

This an idea that I think Anderson was coming to turns with, especially as a lot of us had to focus on how scary and alone we could be during the COVID pandemic. It was in this time probably when Anderson was thinking about what the world meant, what life beyond the earth would mean. Our fascination with our potential smallness in the universe can be the most perplexing and influential aspect of our beliefs about death but, in the end, can be as silly as religion because we all do not know the answers. It can seem bleak but I think Anderson ends the film in such a way as to say that we can make the most of our lives (and it’s ok if that’s all we can do)

Asteroid City is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now.

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