–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Asteroid City – What Wes Has Wrought

by | Jun 24, 2023

Wes Anderson is a name director in an era when comic book heroes are box office hits along with the occasional indie shoegaze crossover hit.  

While Anderson doesn’t command the clout of a James Cameron or Christopher Nolan, he can dependably deliver quaint examples of oddball attitude films.

Gone are the tighter storytelling structures of a Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums judicially replaced by color-coordinated, perfectly delineated yet perplexing, constantly switching aspect ratios and genre conventions, usually both within any given scene. 

The setting of Anderson’s latest, Asteroid City, is the 1950’s in the Nevada desert. The vibe suggests one of the many atomic based monster thrillers of that era, albeit with a pastel desert sheen that plays with sunlight shining on turquoise and burnt orange landscapes. There are black-and-white breakaways in the form of interstitial scenes that depict a 1950’s era television interview show hosted by Bryan Cranston that recalls the Omnibus CBS Sunday afternoon specials mixed with Ed Murrow solemnity.

It’s a make-believe world populated by fascinating characters. Shot on location in Spain, the film delivers the desert ambiance of a spaghetti western on a fast food budget. A father and his four kids, one of whom is receiving a young scientist award, are stuck in the titular Asteroid City when their car breaks down. 

There’s an alien played by Jeff Goldblum, a stock Anderson collaborator. It’s actually the second time Goldblum has played an alien (Earth Girls Are Easy). There’s a few newbies to the Anderson universe like Steve Carell, Margot Robbie, and Matt Dillon along with familiar faces like Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and Tony Revolori. Anderson has the most reliable stock characters in filmdom since Preston Sturges.

Robbie’s scene is so short (mere minutes) that you feel her part could’ve been lensed in an afternoon and she missed the opportunity to hang with the other permanent players to soak up the sun in what must have been an amazingly fun shoot.

New faces like Maya Hawke are given predominance with close-ups and multiple scenes. And Jason Schwartzman, also a stand-out in the ensemble cast, comes off more erudite and conventional than you’ve ever seen. 

Anderson uses a score from Alexandre Desplat that sweeps in grandeur at times while alternately sounding like a Kabuki theater with minimalistic syncopated beats and clicks that mark time. Throw in some retro sounding country pop recordings from the era that bubble innocently in the background.

Most of Asteroid City feels like a minor excursion for Anderson, a mere excuse to try out his latest Rube Goldberg mechanics at making seemingly different devices come together in unison. Such as a concession machine that makes exotic cocktails. 

A military presence turns up to investigate an UAP but becomes fodder for ridicule rather than progressing the story into any sort of meaningful alien invasion movie. Asteroid City is like a neighborhood with a cul-de-sac where all the houses are in a different dimension.

As a lad, I had seen a late night weekend television sci-fi flick from the 1950’s. Obviously in black-and-white but our household didn’t have color until 1970, so all movies were black-and-white anyway. There was a documentary feel to the film as montages of newsreel footage of submarines and atomic explosions combine to form a narrative. All that I specifically remember are scientists confronting a large octopus brain in a flying saucer and barely escaping with their lives by diving through a door that is closing like a camera iris.

It was nearly 50 years later before I learned the title, 1959’s The Atomic Submarine, obscure then as now but a tasty gem of atomic low-budget filmmaking. Somehow, despite being twenty-years younger than me, Anderson has caught that delirium fever of seeing a film where you remember select scenes forever while forgetting other parts that are so complex they easily fade from memory. 

Asteroid City is currently unwinding in theaters.