From ’30s Europe to ’60s France and near-future Japan, Wes Anderson has travelled wide and well in the last decade. So it proves again with his 11th feature, a playfully searching delight. A sky-watching romp that contemplates infinity, Asteroid City offers a wry exploration of life’s mysteries and proves that the Anderson touch can hold firm in the face of the great beyond.
That arch imprint is clear from the monochrome prologue, an east coast-set theatrical framing device Anderson later revisits to counterpoint the film’s main action. A burst into colour then whisks us to a sun-kissed town in the US southwest, new turf for Anderson. Even so, the spectacle of a colour-coordinated train bisecting the landscape plays like a nifty pun on his flair for symmetries. Westworld, meet Wes world.
Here, precocious Junior Stargazers (and parents) visit a meteor-crater site to display their inventions, ranging from botanical acceleration to astronomical imaging. So far, so Rushmore-esque. But photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) also has to let go of the damaged family car – and his children’s recently deceased mother. Meanwhile, atomic-bomb tests shake the area and an alien drops by, prompting a military quarantine.
Family, grief, lockdown, anxiety… Stretching his familiarly "cool and delicious" sensibilities (to borrow a phrase from his script), Anderson touches on themes of mortality, modern dread, and nuclear fears here, interrogating how our beliefs and identities help us navigate unknown territory. Theatre and photography are two such methods; in a fantastically funny set piece, other characters turn to song. Meanwhile, Augie’s daughters declare themselves witches and attempt to reanimate mum from her ashy remains in a Tupperware container.
If emotional focus splinters a little across Anderson’s starry ensemble, his wit and way with actors remain joyous. Effectively playing Bill Murray, Tom Hanks wears his Anderson-ian predecessor’s trousers well. Maya Hawke impresses as a teacher doggedly clinging to facts amid chaos, while Scarlett Johansson graduates from Isle of Dogs voicework in doubled-up roles as dark-haired/blonde actors struggling with toxic directors.
Meta-puns and layers of art/reality mount, sometimes to playful ends, sometimes to faintly distancing effect. But there’s no doubting the invention and drollery on show, much less the subtle sincerity of Anderson’s questioning. As his characters ponder how to “do” life’s uncertainties, one answer offered is "trust your curiosity." As ever, Anderson’s curiosity guides him wondrously well here.