This Is the Meaning Behind Wes Anderson’s Latest Movie

This Is the Meaning Behind Wes Anderson’s Latest Movie

The Big Picture

  • In Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, uncertainty and chaos take center stage, prompting characters to grapple with things out of their control.
  • Anderson’s style is not as lightweight as it may seem; his films deal with big issues such as depression, trauma, and political commodification.
  • The film’s main character, Augie, struggles with emotional constipation and containment, epitomizing the theme of finding serenity in uncertainty.


Near the beginning of Wes Anderson’s wonderful new movie, Asteroid City, war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) brings his car to the titular town’s mechanic (Matt Dillon, because even the bit characters in Wes Anderson movies are played by Oscar nominees). The mechanic tells him that there are two possible reasons Augie’s car broke down. The first requires a simple replacement of a cheap part, and the second means his car is permanently broken. While the stakes are certainly high, this sort of binary can be comforting to some people: out of everything that could happen to an automobile, the mechanic has winnowed it down to two possibilities. It will either be a quick fix or a junked car – one or the other.

Except, of course, it isn’t. After it appears the mechanic fixed the motor, it comes to a sputtering stop once more, and the car coughs up some strange, sparking part that has to be neutralized with a fire extinguisher. “I think we’re dealin’ with a third thing I ain’t never seen before,” the mechanic remarks; the world is rarely kind enough to give us one thing or another. This is only the first manifestation of uncertainty and chaos in Asteroid City, which finds one of modern cinema’s most meticulous directors coming to grips with the things that are out of his – and everybody else’s – control.

Asteroid City Poster

Asteroid City

Following a writer on his world famous fictional play about a grieving father who travels with his tech-obsessed family to small rural Asteroid City to compete in a junior stargazing event, only to have his world view disrupted forever.

Release Date
June 23, 2023

Rating
R

Runtime
105 minutes


‘Asteroid City’ Sees Wes Anderson in an Existential Mood

This is not the first time Wes Anderson has tackled big issues. Stereotyped by TikTok parodies and AI grotesqueries as a peddler of lightweight cinematic confections, Anderson’s famous style is something of a Trojan horse: he allows audiences to indulge in his peerless art direction and the mannered whimsy of his writing, only to wallop them with the Croquet Mallet of Bittersweet Poignance. (I assume he’d use a croquet mallet, anyway – it seems in character for him.) The Royal Tenenbaums explores depression and generational trauma, The Grand Budapest Hotel chases its delirious caper with a sobering reminder of the beautiful things destroyed by fascism, and The French Dispatch grapples with everything from the commodification of revolutionary politics to the lonely life of an expat. Call it “twee” if you like, but can a legion of people Pavlov’d into tearing up whenever they hear “These Days” by Nico all be wrong?

In Asteroid City, however, Anderson’s favorite themes of loneliness and emotional repression take on an existential bent. Both layers of the film’s narrative – Asteroid City itself, and the televised behind-the-scenes framing device around it – engage with what it means to find yourself adrift and uncertain in a world that seems to have spun off its axis. In the “play” proper, a colorful cast of characters converges upon Asteroid City for a youth astronomy convention, only to come face to face with the infinite mystery of the cosmos when an alien interrupts a stargazing session. Their lives are thrown further off balance when the U.S. government enforces a week-long quarantine on the city, trapping them in the middle of the desert with their newly shattered worldviews.

Some people handle it better than others. The prim Christian school teacher, June Douglas (Maya Hawke), is clearly unmoored by the extraterrestrial intrusion into God’s design; she’s chirpy and nervous as she tries in vain to stick to her lesson plan. (Her students, by contrast, take it all in stride, with a little help from a singing cowboy named Montana played by Rupert Friend.) Stern, clenched-jaw patriarch J.J. Kellogg (Liev Schreiber) is reduced to clutching a death ray and barking threats at a soldier; the five Junior Stargazers take it upon themselves to leak the alien’s existence to the public, spurred by the scientific and philosophical implications of interstellar life. Those who remain unfazed have something else to devote themselves to, whether that’s their job (Steve Carell’s motel manager) or their sense of duty to their late daughter (Tom Hanks as Augie’s father-in-law.)

Jason Schwartzman’s Character Anchor the Film’s Theme

The most compelling arc of all belongs to Augie himself – as well as that of his in-universe actor, Jones Hall. Augie is the newest of Anderson’s many aloof father figures, and he manages to outdo the likes of Steve Zissou and Royal Tenenbaum in terms of sheer emotional constipation. A bearded, stone-faced man who habitually chews on a pipe, Augie delivers his lines in a bone-dry monotone that’s deadpan even for a Wes Anderson character. He avoids telling his children about the death of their mother for weeks after the fact, as “the time is never right”; when he finally gets around to it, he can only say that she “succumbed to her illness,” as though he were writing a press release. He confines his strong emotions – trauma from World War II, lust for movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), wonder at a newly arrived alien – within the frame of his camera, keeping them at a safe, artful distance. Like the army general (Jeffrey Wright) who orders the people of Asteroid City to stay put, he would rather keep troublesome things in quarantine than leave anything to chance; of course, they’re bound to get out sooner or later.

Jones Hall may not have to deal with an alien (or at least, as an actor, he knows that his alien is played by Jeff Goldblum), but he grapples with many of the same issues as Augie. He, too, seeks neat solutions he can never truly find; he asks questions that no one can answer. Not even the playwright, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), knows why Augie burns his hand on a griddle in Act III; when Jones offers a hesitant guess, Earp immediately goes along with it, but Jones remains unsatisfied. Even when the moment comes, Jones-as-Augie performs the action automatically and without thinking. The question is just a small part of a greater uncertainty; he corners director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and urgently asks him if he’s “doing this right,” and only a wistful conversation with a former scene partner cut for time (Margot Robbie, playing the actress who would have played Augie’s wife) helps put him on the right track. In the end, he’s the one who comes up with an acting class mantra that serves as the movie’s thesis statement: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

You can try and establish order in your life. You can build a little town in a vast, arid desert; you can take pictures of things to make them less real; you can stick to your lesson plan about the Solar System after experiencing an alien encounter; you can even become a world-famous director renowned for your microscopic attention to detail. But you will always be faced with questions you can’t answer and truths you can’t swallow; you will always show a mechanic something he’s never seen before; you will never find an easy solution to grief or trauma; you will never be 100% certain you’re where you ought to be. But you can’t wake up, or experience something like serenity if you don’t fall asleep — if you don’t accept what you can’t control and make peace with the unknown. Or, as Schubert Green tells Jones when he admits he still doesn’t understand the play: “Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story. You’re doing great.”

Asteroid City is now available to stream on Amazon Prime

Watch on Amazon Prime

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