Desert of the Real
By Vikram Murthi

Asteroid City
Dir. Wes Anderson, U.S., Focus Features

Even within the world of Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, Asteroid City isn’t real. The fictional arid Southwestern ghost town (pop. 87)—mostly comprised of a motel, a luncheonette, a filling station, and a series of vending machines where you can buy everything from martinis to real estate, all of it near a massive meteor crater and an observatory—is actually the impossibly expansive set for a theater piece. The film’s frame story, which is presented as a Playhouse 90–style television drama hosted by a Rod Serling-esque figure (Bryan Cranston), chronicles the origins and production of this play. While “Asteroid City” the play formally resembles a film and is presented in widescreen color, the frame story operates like a stage production filmed in Academy radio. Subsequently, some members of Asteroid City’s enormous ensemble cast play characters in the production and their corresponding actors in the behind-the-scenes drama.

As in Anderson’s previous work, Asteroid City’s nesting-doll structure neatly parallels Anderson’s dizzyingly dense frame, which bursts at the seams with impeccably composed production design, blink-and-miss-it sight gags, and an expansive depth of field that mirrors the director’s seemingly limitless, strongly curated imagination. But by stressing the unreality of both the “Asteroid City” play and the constructed retelling of its production, while simultaneously committing to the “realism” of the two settings, Anderson takes a deliberately circuitous approach to untangling his thicket of ideas. He purposely provokes confusion in the audience to situate us in his characters’ own perplexities. Everybody’s searching for answers, Anderson essentially argues, and there’s no guarantee that any are forthcoming. So why do we pursue them?

A general feeling of displacement and loss pervades Asteroid City, stretching from the characters’ emotions to the dual settings and time periods. Anderson places the film in 1955, the beginning of the Atomic Age, a period marked by postwar paranoia and disquiet. Atomic tests regularly occur in Asteroid City, shaking the town to its foundation; the hustle of freight trains clash with the recurring sight of speeding car chases, creating a sense of heightened, yet normalized tension in the area. The disorder in “Asteroid City” stems from an internal malaise and an external threat. Recent widower Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) brings his three young daughters and teenage son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), to Asteroid City to honor the scientific inventions of five Junior Stargazers, of which Woodrow is one. Augie delays informing his children that their mother has died, which puts more strain on his already tense relationship with his father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), who has been tasked to pick up the family in Asteroid City because Augie’s car has broken down. Augie’s deep well of grief, which he expresses in fits and starts, collides with the sudden arrival of an extraterrestrial, who descends from a spaceship to take back the meteorite that landed in the area thousands of years prior.

Disorientation extends behind the scenes to those working on the play: the actor Jones Hall (also Schwartzman) struggles to convey Augie’s grief and heartbreak, and gets stuck on a particular moment when the character intentionally burns his hand on an electric griddle. He seeks advice from both the playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), a Tennessee Williams type who dies not long into the run of “Asteroid City,” and the director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), who has been ousted from his home by his ex-wife and lives on set during the production. Both Conrad and Schubert give Jones vague yet encouraging notes on his interpretation and performance. He feels he can’t authentically tap into the interiority necessary to bring Augie to life, and yet it’s that feeling of being lost at sea that lends him authority.

A war photographer, Augie carries a piece of shrapnel in his head from a WWII battlefield, but in classic Anderson fashion, he’s not the only adult in town carrying around wounds like souvenirs. Hollywood actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who arrives to town with her Junior Stargazer daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), admits to Augie, with whom she shares a strange connection and eventually has an affair, that she values her career over motherhood—despite loving her daughter, she feels no guilt about committing to her craft, but she carries the burden of her choice. The adults in Asteroid City are riddled with anxieties and fears about nuclear war, extraterrestrial life, and the uncertainties of the future; the children—the five introverted, on-the-spectrum Junior Stargazers and a class of ten excitable eight-year-olds on a field trip—are no less neurotic, but their precociousness and curiosity about the world pushes them into action instead of stasis.

Anderson contrasts this free-floating sociocultural panic with its attendant mid-century dilemma in the arts. The frame story follows acolytes of Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), the Lee Strasberg-esque leader of a revolutionary theater company clearly inspired by the Actors Studio, who are trying to find innovative ways to communicate the realism of their characters’ internal machinations. In Saltzburg’s rehearsal space, that means enacting exercises that push the group out of their comfort zones, like attempting to fall asleep in order to properly dream. But what happens when those same comfort zones dissolve entirely, either because of a particularly vexing play or the vagaries of the modern world? How do we behave authentically within inauthentic spaces? Who will help us stay grounded? “If you wanted to live a nice, quiet, peaceful life,” intones five-star General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), the host of the festivities, to the Junior Stargazers before their ceremony, “you picked the wrong time to get born.”


Asteroid City visually astounds, serving as a reminder that Anderson’s singular aesthetic has zero contemporaries, and that every A.I. recreation or YouTube/TikTok parody that tries to reduce his work to “centered compositions” completely misses the point. (Or more accurately, reduces it to the character portraits in the opening credits of The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that’s now more than 20 years old.) The color in the “Asteroid City” scenes feels borderline miraculous: I can’t top my colleague Vadim Rizov’s description of it as “Looney Tunes meets Red Desert” because at times it looks like Antonioni personally color-constructed a live-action Chuck Jones cartoon. The hodgepodge of other visual referents—Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Bad Day at Black Rock, Ace in the Hole, the anthology dramas from the first Golden Age of TV, not to mention the sartorial nods to ’50s actors like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando, etc.—feel of a piece with Asteroid City’s vision of Americana in crisis.

Anderson’s camera has always moved with methodical intent, but here, you really feel that he has pared down every dolly, pan, and 360° turn so that it serves a specific, unique function to either the narrative or the spectacle. No close-up is superfluous; every time an actor’s face fills a screen, it carries emotional weight that lends them the attention they require. Anderson’s set-ups rarely repeat, and it’s because he consciously adjusts his tried-and-true formula with each feature, providing himself with new challenges, whether it’s building a small Southwestern town in Spain or finally literalizing his longstanding theatrical sensibility.

Eleven features and nearly 30 years into Anderson’s career, it’s a given that the form and content of his films are irrevocably intertwined. His controlled aesthetic tends to echo his characters’ meticulous personalities, environments, and routines; he transparently highlights the surfaces to emphasize the chaos and tragedy that lie just beneath them, both of which inevitably bubble to the surface in a frenzied fashion. The artifice is always the point with Anderson, but beginning with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), he foregrounds his hermetic style to a potentially (and, for me, estimably) alienating degree. As his mise-en-scène expands across fictional countries (the Eastern European nation of Zubrowka in Grand Budapest), cities (Megasaki in 2018’s Japan-set Isle of Dogs), and towns (Ennui-sur-Blasé of 2021’s The French Dispatch)—his ordered direction has become more pronounced, the size of his casts increased, and his narratives more intricate.

To my eyes, his aesthetic is anything but claustrophobic, but Anderson certainly makes his audience work harder to mine emotions that were more readily available in his earlier, classically “heartfelt” films. At the same time, his late work has meaningfully engaged with the long tail of 20th century political strife that hangs over the present like a dark cloud: the threat of fascist authoritarianism in Grand Budapest and Isle of Dogs, with both films squarely siding with the marginalized rebels fighting upwind; the examination of the value of social unrest, the unmoored tension immigrants feel in their adopted countries, and how the strongest social communities arise from internal discord and liberal flexibility in The French Dispatch. With Asteroid City, he transfers ’50s paranoia to contemporary climate anxiety, the feeling that doom is coming just down the pike. The palpable sense that everybody’s running out of time sheds light on the characters’ actions, manifesting as desperation to tell the truth after years of repressing it, like Augie’s attempt to reconnect with his children after considering abandoning them; or Midge tentatively admitting her struggles to Augie; or Jones trying to mine the depths of his character’s plight, even if he feels he comes up short.

The sheer amount of characters and events in Asteroid City alone is daunting, and though Anderson maintains everything in a quiet, almost contemplative register, the speed with which dialogue and information is delivered, often diffusely spread across two settings that exist in different realities, can make even the most attentive viewer’s head spin. The tone shifts wildly from broad comedic spectacle to painfully intimate two-person scenes, brushing closely with whiplash. “Twee” has always been the laziest label for Anderson’s gestalt—his work might acknowledge the innocence of childhood, but never with rose-colored glasses that blind us to the mundane pains and horrors of the world. Yet, there’s still an argument to be made that Asteroid City is his most affected film. Anderson’s characters typically communicate in a clipped, deadpan delivery, but in Asteroid City, that effect has been ratcheted up a notch, with almost everybody on screen speaking in a similar halting, po-faced tone.

Anderson doubling down on his style is hardly a sign of stubborn immaturity. If anything, Asteroid City has a strong ambiguous streak that’s barely been explored before. The unease within the world of “Asteroid City” and the frame story still permeates the film by the end. The homegrown apocalyptic menace persists in the desert, and the mysteries of the galaxy will continue to haunt and enthrall the witnesses of the alien presence for the rest of their lives. Augie and Midge’s respective wounds are still fresh, only mildly sated by the events that brought their families together. Meanwhile, the play will go on for a little while until its abrupt close, and the actors will live with uncertainty about their performances until their next role. Asteroid City doesn’t exactly conclude on a downbeat note—disparate people still come together and look towards the future—but any sense of optimism is decidedly muted.

Yet it’s Anderson’s belief in people—the unlikely connections and romances that arise between them, the vulnerability they express at their lowest moments, the compassion and patience they have with family, friends, and strangers who are dealing with their own atomized pain—that comes through strongest under such a deceptively dispassionate framework. Asteroid City, and really all of Anderson’s late work, strongly counters the longstanding misconception that emotions are only legible when depicted realistically or maximally. The characters in Asteroid City speak in an unnatural, matter-of-fact manner, and they move through explicitly artificial spaces, and yet their real pain—and their attempts to assuage it with assistance from others—feels more persuasive, more moving because of the manufactured infrastructure. There’s genuine, adult feeling behind the mutual understanding that arises between Augie and Stanley, despite the latter’s ongoing distrust of his son-in-law. There’s honesty when Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), the childless astronomer who runs the observatory, tells the nervous Woodrow that everything he does is worthwhile because he has a curious mind, something the teenager clearly hadn’t been told before.

Anderson eventually collapses the film’s dual characters and settings via Schwartzman’s performance. Schwartzman-as-Augie leaves the Asteroid City set during its physical climax to return backstage where, as Jones Hall, he asks Schubert, the director, whether he’s playing the character right. Schubert assures him that he is, despite some “actorly business,” and to just read the story if he doesn’t understand the play. Immediately afterwards, he heads to a fire escape to smoke a cigarette where he speaks with the actress (Margot Robbie) who once played Augie’s late wife, standing on the opposite fire escape of a neighboring theater. Together, they perform their cut scene—a dream sequence between Augie and his wife that occurs on a moon of the alien’s planet—for themselves across a chasm of darkness.

It’s difficult to put into words the complicated magic that arises from these two successive scenes. As a child, Schwartzman starred in Rushmore as the precocious teenage playwright/director Max Fischer, arguably the most autobiographical Anderson character; the conversation between him and Brody feels a lot like an older Schwartzman (or a grown-up Max) asking an older Anderson for guidance and being assured that he’s still doing okay, despite all the loss and confusion. (It’s also as if Anderson is using his once-younger surrogate to assure himself of the same thing.) Meanwhile, the scene between Schwartzman and Robbie speaks to Anderson’s late-era project, which testifies that authentic candor, about grief or real-world concerns, can arise from the stagiest settings: two “real” people perform a scene for no one but themselves, and in the process, transcend the confines of fiction and reach profound understanding.

Near the end of Asteroid City, the actors in Saltzburg Keitel’s rehearsal space repeat the phrase “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep!” like a mantra, which Anderson initially films in disruptive Godardian direct address. It’s a moment unlike anything in the Anderson oeuvre, and he never tips his hand at its exact meaning. Yet, it radiates a belief that truth arises from the most unreal places. Asteroid City doesn’t exist, but everyone in it breathes real air.