Pulse Issue 2: 2023

A Trek Through the Cosmic Wilderness: Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City

by: Claire Diamant

When discussing the film at a family dinner, my cousin remarked that part of the reason she loved Asteroid City (2023) was because it had no overarching message, no larger point. Instinctually, I wanted to argue. I came out of the film with the impression that Asteroid City was one of Anderson’s most meaningful works.

Asteroid City opens with The Host (played by Bryan Cranston) speaking directly to the audience. It is a black and white medium shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio, giving the impression of a television program pre-technicolour. This distinct aesthetic choice—as well as its intentionally two-dimensional set—will become a staple each time we are thrown out of the play and into the film’s version of the real world. Asteroid City—the town, not the film—is overwhelmingly warm, from its bright, almost artificial lighting to the warmth of the red rocks which surround the town. The costumes exaggerate this effect, brightly coloured 1950s style clothing that give Asteroid City the impression of a restored film from a bygone era. With a 25 million dollar budget, it is clear that much of the money for this film went into the stellar production design of the titular town.

“Asteroid City does not exist,” The Host tells us. “It is a fictional city created expressly for this broadcast.” The Host acts as an omniscient narrator—though he is always visually present when we hear his voice. This is a television program and he is our guide, but only to an extent. If he were too involved, it would break our immersion in the story. Asteroid City follows a linear structure, with the titular play being split into three acts. Put most simply, Asteroid City is the story of a small desert town on the California/Nevada/Arizona border that is locked down due to a brief visit from an alien. As is now considered typical of Anderson’s films, it is a highly stylized, star-studded ensemble piece. Asteroid City is alive, giving the viewer the impression that each character—whether we are privy to it or not—has their own subplot, their own agency outside of the throughline of the film.

If Asteroid City had a protagonist, it would be Augie Steenbeck (played by Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer reeling from the recent death of his wife. Schwartzman is a frequent collaborator of Anderson’s, and his off-beat acting style lends itself incredibly well to Asteroid City’s frequent eye-level camera angles. Of all the actors—remember, Asteroid City is a play within a television program within a movie—Augie’s is the one we come to know the most closely, almost entirely due to his relationship with Asteroid City’s playwright, Conrad Earp. Earp has no counterpart in Asteroid City (the play), unless one considers the possibility of Scarlett Johannson’s character—the melancholic actress Midge Campbell—as his manic pixie stand-in, someone who exists in Augie’s orbit yet remains tantalisingly out of reach. “Remember me as a blur in your rearview mirror,” Midge tells Augie, a line from her next movie. “Was I ever there? Did you actually see me?”

Earp’s interactions with Augie’s actor—eventually introduced to the audience as Jones Hall—are seen exclusively in the black and white of the television program, and they interact almost entirely in wide shots. When they kiss, it is in near darkness, the camera no more focused on them than the flat, set-like location of Earp’s home. A recurring criticism of Anderson’s work is that his focus on aesthetic prioritises style over substance, sanitising its message through overly intentional shots. This scene goes directly against this: its intentional unfocus is still distinctly Anderson, but it allows the viewer to decide whether there is any meaning in what they’re seeing.

The characters, too, grapple with meaning. “Why does Augie burn his hand on the Quickie-Griddle?” When Augie impulsively burns his hand, he doesn’t know why he’s done it. It’s not something Jones Hall understands, either. “Do I just keep doing it?” He asks the play’s director, in a close-up shot uncharacteristic of the scenes outside of Asteroid City (the play), a physical closeness to the actor we are experiencing for the first time, ten minutes from the end of the film. “Without knowing anything?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

“I still don’t understand the play.” It is likely that he never will, at least not as Earp intended it. Directly following this interaction, the audience is told by The Host that Conrad Earp died in a car accident five months into the play’s run. In a scene which draws clear inspiration from the stylistic methods of classic horror, Earp is told—in a sudden, jarring dutch-angle shot, a flash of colour—that “you can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” It becomes a litany, preformed by the ensemble of Earp’s own play, but the person who incites the chant is Hall, his lover. The typical Wes Anderson whimsy is still there (the non-diegetic music is an upbeat chorus of chimes) but it is twisted in a way the viewer could not possibly anticipate.

So, my cousin’s argument. Does steroid CityA lack a larger meaning? My instinct is to disagree with that assessment. Asteroid City’s meaning—its overarching theme—is the struggle to make sense of the world, the desire to find meaning in that which has none. People die too young, too soon. Those we love will leave us. We seem prone to self-destruction, aware enough to recognize it but powerless to stop it. The reality is bleak. It is apparent to everyone but us.

“How did [the alien] look at us?”

“Like we’re doomed.”

“Maybe we are.”

Even with this feeling, Asteroid City carries a palpable joy through its gloom. Augie’s daughters dance around their mother’s ashes, pretending to be witches. Augie’s son falls in love for the first time. There’s a melancholy hiding under Asteroid City’s technicolour sheen but intertwined with that is something distinctly human. Why does Augie burn his hand on the Quicky-Griddle? Because pain is a reminder that we exist, that hurting is better than feeling nothing at all. Or—more cynically—maybe it’s simply because it’s written that way. After all, it is only a play written by a dead man, performed for an audience we see only once through the door of a set-piece.

The beauty of Asteroid City is that it allows you to decide for yourself. It’s a difficult film to define because there are so many little moments that are all given equal weight, shots which linger long enough to make you truly appreciate what you’re being shown. The camera is rarely anything but stationary—there are no shots which appear hand-held—but each frame is still distinctly immersive. From Anderson’s use of a wide-angle lens to provide stunning wide shots (in which the set appears almost doll-like, like we are watching living miniatures) to the normal lens he uses for close-up conversations between characters, every technical aspect of Asteroid City makes it a fascinating and deeply personal film. It is a marvel to watch.

Claire Diamant is a writer and editor from Victoria, British Columbia. Her work has been featured in numerous magazines, including but not limited to: the first edition of Pulse, Petal Projections, and Vulture. She considers herself a woman in STEM, despite not knowing how to do long division.