Wes Anderson's Asteroid City (2023) movie poster

Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” (2023)

🎥 The more I try to make sense of “Asteroid City” the more I like it. I think..

We went to see Asteroid City last night. Usually, we exclusively see Marvel movies on the big screen so it’s nice to pop out for something different now and again!

I don’t think my partner enjoyed it all that much but I did!

It might be the most ‘Wes Anderson‘ Wes Anderson film I’ve seen. Of course, it looks amazing and I especially love a 50s science-fiction vibe. It has the favourite core cast (with a few newbies) with that typical Wes Anderson dialogue and all the pulled up socks you could want. I like that his characters are usually emotionally stilted and awkward, often lonely and struggling to fit in. They are never emotionless, there is plenty of emotion underneath the surface. They’re just quieter about it, they think before they speak.

However, Asteroid City is more challenging than say Grand Budapest Hotel or The Royal Tenebaums (my two favourites). As my partner said once we left the theatre, “It has its moments” but overall the humour is less overt and it’s slow. The plot doesn’t move much and through the show, within a show within a show conceit it made it difficult to connect with any characters, and it ends up very opaque as to what on earth is it even about?

I left the cinema having enjoyed the movie but feeling confused about what to make of it! Now I am most definitely not a movie critic, I wouldn’t describe myself as a “movie guy” – I don’t even watch that many movies! – but I do like stories, and this one I really want to try to untangle.

I think that it was overall about using intellectual pursuits as a way to connect with others, and to process big emotions. 

Most obviously this is grief. Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) arrives in the town of Asteroid City to take his son to the Junior Stargazers prize event and must break it to his 4 children that their mother died 3 weeks ago but it hadn’t been able to “find the right time” to tell them earlier. Augie is ignoring his grief – and his children – instead focused on his photography and flirtation with equally stunted movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). The two bond over their artistic pursuits – photography and acting.

Augie and Midge are also both absent parents as their careers – war photographer and famous actress – presumably mean they are both away from home for significant periods. Midge acknowledges that she is not a good parent, while Augie only grunts and chews his pipe. By the end of the movie, we don’t know what happens with Midge and Dinah (who barely interact the whole time) but Augie has given up his plan to abandon his children and they all leave together with their Grandfather (Tom Hanks).

There is a later scene between the actor that plays Augie and the actress who was cast to play his wife (Margot Robbie), now in a play in the next-door theatre, recalls the scene she would have shared with him. In this, the wife would have told Augie he would need to move on for the sake of the children and would have had him face his grief. But this scene was cut from the play itself, so we never see it.

Elsewhere in the play, these themes play out further. Augie’s teenage, socially withdrawn, “Brainiac” son Woodrow finds friendship with the other Junior Stargazers as they put their science brains together to work to solve the mystery of the alien, and finds love with Dinah Campbell. Meanwhile, his three younger sisters get lost in their imagination playing with witchcraft to bury the ashes of their mother (in a Tupperware container).

Their Grandfather, who arrives to take the children off Augie’s hands, is the only one acknowledging grief and willing to provide support. He appears to enjoy his time trapped in Asteroid City and is the most reluctant to leave (“I like the desert. I like aliens.”).

In a more overt exploration of these themes, Good Christian Teacher June (Mara Hawke) struggles to teach her class according to her pre-prepared lesson plan because the children are so distracted by the appearance of the alien, and trying to make sense of what it means. Rather than focusing on their lessons they want to share that they have made sculptures, drawings and even a song about the alien. In the end, her love interest Montana and his group of troubadour cowboys join the class to sing and dance about it, with smiles on all their faces.

Then at the top layers of the movie, we are watching a TV show about writing, casting and staging a play (“Asteroid City”), the director of which is living in the theatre because his wife is divorcing him, but the crew on the play are taking care of him. In the most meta scene, the actor playing Augie is struggling to understand his character’s motivations and what the play is about, while being told he is doing too much (the fake beard, the pipe, the camera, the eyebrows) but he is still doing OK.

I don’t know what the play is about.

That doesn’t matter. Just keep on telling the story.

I think I’d have to watch it again to really decide what I think of it. I’m sure there is something else in the Motel Owner (Steve Carell) and his vending machine for plots of land, but I can’t remember that scene well enough! We also have the Mechanic (Matt Dillion) who doesn’t seem to be very good at fixing things, and the mysterious sparking broken part that fell out the Steenbeck’s car.

While I don’t think this is going to stick around as one of my top Wes Anderson movies it has made me think. It’s not often I want to take a couple of hours to try to untangle a story (especially movies, I’m not a movie guy!) – so I actually guess that is quite exciting!

Oh I also really want a framed copy of the photograph of the alien! I love it!

If you have seen it, please share your thoughts with me!

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