Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City Will Please His Fans and Infuriate His Skeptics

Asteroid City dials up the “Wes Anderson” to 11, leaving an emotional void in its wake.

Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell in Asteroid City. (Focus Features, 2023)

By this time, you’re either a diehard Wes Anderson fan or most definitely not. So presumably that’ll decide whether you see his new film Asteroid City. He’s become so extremely Wes Andersonian over the years that people who merely liked his early films like Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) have fallen away gasping for relief, unable to handle the increasing airlessness of his authorship.

Asteroid City, ironically, is about the vastness of space and the grand mysteries of life and death, involving the attendees at an astronomy convention in a tiny American desert town that becomes the site of an actual alien landing. But Anderson’s way of handling such expansive topics is to make everything tight and contrived and stage-bound. It’s possible that he’s trying to convey the limitations of human experience, and the way we tend to live stuck within stiff, diorama-like architectural arrangements and confining social conventions and stodgy habits of mind, no matter what extraordinary things happen to us.

But I don’t think so. Lately especially, Anderson movies — no matter what the premises or plot developments — always use complex frame stories and theatrical settings. It just seems to be because he likes the effect.

This particular one features a “Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets” convention in 1955 in the remote desert town of Asteroid City, where a crater left by the supposed falling of a meteorite ages ago is the main tourist attraction. A motel manager (Steve Carell, replacing Bill Murray, who had COVID) runs the only tourist accommodations in town, a series of rudimentary guest cabins. There’s only one restaurant — a diner. Atomic bomb testing nearby sends up occasional mushroom clouds, which accounts for the strong military presence, led by General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright).

During the convention, a small group of brainy teenagers are awarded prizes for their space-related inventions, and their parents and other adults are there to witness the ceremony. They include war photographer and grieving widower Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), movie and TV star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), teacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke), and astronomer Dr Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton).

Then there’s an actual space-alien landing, and an extraterrestrial — an amusingly elongated, pop-eyed animated creature, with Jeff Goldblum as the actor playing him behind the scenes — who touches down in the crater. This stunning event temporarily alters everyone’s experience, until the routines of family and professional life overtake them all again.

All of this is presented in Anderson’s patented, extremely stylized way, of course, with a distracting and quite beautiful color scheme featuring an intensification of Southwestern colors like turquoise and coral. The most memorable images in the film are probably the flat, frontal shots of Johansson as Midge, in Elizabeth Taylor–like raven-black hair and cat-eye makeup and red lips, framed in her cabin window, talking to Schwartzman as Augie, similarly framed opposite her, as they conduct a deadpan love affair between “two catastrophically wounded people.” Johansson in particular seems to have found the key to delivering Anderson’s semi-sedated dialogue effectively, and she credits Schwartzman — an Anderson favorite ever since he starred in Rushmore way back when — with helping her figure out how to do it.

The movie starts in black and white with the old, square Academy aspect ratio to convey a 1950s TV image featuring a typically stiff, solemn male narrator of the day (Bryan Cranston) describing a landmark televised play called Asteroid City. It’s by a noted American playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whom we see at work on the play. Then his characters begin to populate the stage. The image opens out into widescreen color as we watch the more open-air and realistic version of the events of the play, though a basic staginess remains in the ticky-tacky look of the “sets” and the somewhat narcotized performing style of all the actors. But the narrative keeps on shuttling back and forth between these characters, in color, and the actors playing the characters, and Earp at work, in black and white.

In interviews, Anderson talks about his youthful obsession with director Elia Kazan, who’s the inspiration for the rampantly macho director of the play Asteroid City, Schubert Green (played by Adrien Brody). Like so many explanations for what Anderson is supposedly doing in his films, this one draws a blank, because no filmmaker ever seemed less inspired by Kazan, who was a member of the Group Theater and cofounded the Actors Studio, dedicated to a theater of leftist social commentary, before selling his soul by naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a director, Kazan specialized in raw emotion, social injustice, and the agony of the American experience in films like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), and A Face in the Crowd (1957).

In contrast, Anderson’s approach seems designed to keep you at an emotional distance, without any, say, Brechtian political theory or any other theory to justify or make sense of it. Though some people find this film incredibly moving, in spite of all of Anderson’s best efforts at distance. Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri was brought to tears. And to do him justice, he has a take on all of Anderson’s films to account for his emotion:

There’s a point to all this indulgence. Anderson’s obsessively constructed dioramas explore the very human need to organize, quantify, and control our lives in the face of the unexpected and the uncertain. The regimented universe of Moonrise Kingdom is sent into a spiraling decline by the mania of young love. The Mitteleuropaïsch candy-box milieu of The Grand Budapest Hotel is undone by the creeping evil of authoritarianism. The romantic, Continental fascinations of The French Dispatch are hit with protest, injustice, and violence. Asteroid City might be the purest expression of this dynamic because it’s about the unknown in all its forms. Death, the search for God, the creation of art, the exuberance of love, the mysteries of the cosmos — in Anderson’s telling, they’re all facets of the same thing.

I love movies about “the unknown in all its forms” and think film is a medium amazingly suited to contemplating it. I also love film formalism, with wildly inventive and attention-getting uses of cinematography, mise-en-scène, editing, and sound. This ought to mean I love Wes Anderson. But his filmmaking in recent years has completely lost me. My reaction to Anderson films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch is frothing rage. Asteroid City created the same effect.

At the end of Asteroid City, the credits play over the song “Freight Train,” with its upbeat tempo, bright Southern twang, and grim lyrics: “When I’m dead and in my grave / No more good times here I crave / Place the stones at my head and feet / And tell them all I’ve gone to sleep.” It’s clearly meant to reflect the film’s combination of sunny desert setting and youthful space cadet convention with atomic mushroom clouds of doom hanging over them — which by extension evoke our current state of doom and denial.

Then, in the middle of that culminating song, a crudely animated roadrunner appears at the bottom of the screen and does a herky-jerky dance that lasts till the final image. Hard to explain why it’s so infuriating, and has such a huge fuck-you-losers effect. Does this nerd from suburban Texas think he’s exempt from the human condition just because he lives in Europe now and hangs out with the cultural elite and wears bespoke suits?

Speaking of his suits, a friend of mine said that Wes Anderson seemed like somebody who, as a kid, was dressed by his parents in a miniature seersucker suit, as worn by desiccated Southern gentlemen, just to see how precious he’d look. Then he never stopped wearing it, having larger and larger seersucker suits made until he developed a kind of seersucker suit of the soul. His films, even at their best, were affected and aligned with the elite, and they get more removed from the concerns of ordinary suffering humanity every day.

Anderson just attended the Cannes Film Festival, where Asteroid City premiered, in a seersucker suit. It seems appropriate.