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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Asteroid City // Film Review

"My pictures always come out."

Though not literally the case, it would be easy to argue Asteroid City as a response to the recent ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ trend. The film’s trailer of course sells us on its titular town, and on an ensemble cast of colourful, A-List talents who may or may not be about to bear witness to a potential alien incursion, complete with Anderson’s trademark symmetry and whimsical dialogue.

It might be surprising for some, particularly those familiar with Anderson only through TikTok, when Asteroid City opens not with a neat wide frame of this desert setting, but on the black and white image of narrator Bryan Cranston and playwright Ed Norton contemplating the mechanics of crafting a story against the backdrop of a wide void. This is not an absurd comedy of aliens in America, but rather a portrayal of the various people that go into making every story like it.

Take Asteroid City’s protagonist Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a character gradually revealed to be a Frankenstein’s monster assembled from the various secrets, heartbreaks and existential woes experienced by the story’s star, director and writer respectively. Asteroid City uses its ‘play within a play’ gimmick sporadically, but tactfully.

The world beyond the ‘stage’ is only depicted a handful of times throughout the film, giving us cryptic insights into the personal damages of its writer, three stars (played by Schwartzmann, Scarlett Johansson and Jake Ryan both on-and-off stage) and then its director (Adrien Brody) as Augie moves through the film’s plot. What begins as a generic story about a family man reckoning with tragedy through a sci-fi metaphor methodically reveals itself to be a projection for any number of people involved in the production.

Anderson’s structurally impressive design here is never in service of any one message or meaning, rather it works as an expression for the joys and doubts that go into the craft of storytelling. He is constantly drawing attention to the mechanisms of his plot, going so far as to remind us precisely how many scenes remain between each cutaway beyond the stage.

More interestingly, Anderson also signposts exactly how he intends to keep his audience captivated by a story that could easily become unbearably insular. The opening credits announce in big, flashing letters exactly which stars are in the film and which roles they will be play… including Jeff Goldblum as ‘The Alien’. The film’s opening act is then stuffed full of countdowns, deadlines and an overwhelming amount of foreshadowing which encourages us to anticipate Goldblum’s arrival, with Schwartzmann’s actor character even asking the playwright specifically about the creature before we’ve seen anything of him. Anderson uses the promise of spectacle to keep his film moving along, distracting the audience with great wonders as he works through the material of real interest.

Indeed, if Asteroid City has an overall purpose it might be this very fusion of artistry and entertainment. One scene late in the film sees despairing schoolteacher June (Maya Hawke) struggle to deliver a lesson on the science of the planets in the wake of an extraterrestrial phenomenon, and is then grateful to be drowned out by a song written by one of her pupils, which then in turn rallies several frightened townsfolk to bring out their instruments and join in the fun.

Though any number of ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ TikTok sketches might have an eye for his use of symmetry, oversaturated colours and geometrically absurd costumes, none come close to capturing the immense heart and soul which Anderson infuses into each of his ‘cute’ frames. It can be challenging to sell audiences on the insecurities of actors and writers, but when you transpose those same feelings onto a town of well-meaning hicks whose worldviews have just been shattered learning of life beyond the stars, that’s when you get a real motion picture.


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