Are you watching a TV show, a play, or a movie? An ode to America’s Industrial Revolution, or scientific fiction? Is it catharsis of grief, is it an allegory for the pandemic, is it a commentary on the importance of storytelling, is it Shakespearean?
Kisi filmmaker se ummeed rakhna ya apeksha karna ki iski film hai toh iss hi tarah ki hogi, zaahir hai is a reductive way of looking at their work, creative thought ko aise box-in karke ek “type” dena is to simplify it too much. However, this Wes Anderson film is SO Wes Anderson, so outside of ANY genre, you can’t possibly classify it as anything else, koshish karke dekh lo. This IS a Wes Anderson film, a culmination of everything Wes Anderson that’s come before.
I would suggest Asteroid City ki tickets subah ka joh first show hoga woh karna is weekend because you NEED to be wide awake and well fed for this movie. We meet Augie Steenbeck, an off-duty war photographer driving his 4 children to a science felicitation ceremony jahan his eldest son Woodrow is winning a prize as a young innovator. Augie also has to break to his children that their mother has died. This event is taking place on ‘Asteroid Day’ at a site jahaan 3700 BC mein ek meteorite dharti par gira tha aur ab uss crater ke paas ek motel hai, kuch vending machines, ek railroad and arid land up for sale. Slowly you get to meet the other families whose children are also being felicitated, a bus full of school kids, young “space cadets” with a teacher on a picnic, and a group of singing cowboys who join the proceedings. Oh, and an alien.
I’m not being facetious when I say ki subah dekhna kyunki asteroid city IS the densest movie I’ve seen in a minute. Further in this review, I don’t have the option BUT to talk about some aspects that aren’t in the trailer, abhi bata rahi hoon.
The setup I explained above is an imaginary play being written by Conrad Earp jiska writing process is THEN being shown to an audience watching TV at home. Maane the sequences in the film that seem most real, the color ones are entirely imaginary, maybe they are in Conrad Earp’s head alone, maybe they’re in the made-for-TV show, we don’t know. Means EVERYONE in the FILM Asteroid City is in a double role, an actor and the character they play. If you look EVEN closer, in MY opinion, SOME of these actors are in a TRIPLE role, as people who are hired to play actors in a TV show that’s about a stage play, jismein they are also playing the final characters. NONE of this is a spoiler tbh, kyunki yeh sab explain kiya gaya hai in the very first scene by sootradhar Bryan Cranston, a TV show host. Asteroid City is not breaking the 4th wall, there simply ARE no walls here. It’s reality TV, it’s a documentary, it’s Wes Anderson refusing to give two shi*ts about the form or rules of the medium.
At the end of Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-nominated, semi-autobiographical Pain And Glory, and what I’m about to say IS a spoiler for THAT film, you realize part of what you were seeing through the movie was actually the very movie being shot, Penelope Cruz playing the actor playing Salvador’s mother. Asteroid City is kind of like that…….raised to the power of “infinity”, as writer Conrad Earp, himself describes Asteroid City.
Wes Anderson is FULLY cognizant of the confusion he’s chosen to serve, and I don’t think he expects you to understand his version of his vision. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING is up for interpretation, considering the protagonist of the whole thing, the actor playing Jones Hall playing Augie Steenbeck, at one point goes off stage, straight to the director, and says “I don’t understand what this play is about”.
In a way, despite all the above concentric circles, Asteroid City felt like the most real-world Wes Anderson movie in recent times, and before you insinuate multiple viewings of the movie have contributed to my cognitive disorientation, let me explain. When you usually watch the director’s work, you enter his world, but somewhere you are aware the action is happening in a movie set, he’s not known for realism. HERE, shayad pehli baar, he’s TELLING you, what you’re seeing ARE sets, acknowledging ki you’re an audience watching a play being staged, and you’re ALSO a stay-at-home audience watching black and white TV in the 50s. The fact that you’re in a MOVIE theatre watching all the above, is what YOU need to work on forgetting.
Now this is a VERY difficult task, considering our minds can process time and space in a linear fashion for the most part. Honestly, Asteroid City is more Oppenheimer-esque than I expected it to be, which was 0%. To begin with, the colored vs black and white perceptions of reality, then the fact that they are both set around the same time in America, both feature Atomic Bomb testing, yes, the American military and sitting President trying to control things, a woman losing her life in a bathtub, science experiments in an arid land, at one point a man talks to a woman both in balconies across from the each other, the women “dead” in a manner of speaking, very similar to a Leonardo di Caprio and Marion Cotillard moment in Inception, and I’m sure I’ll find more in a third viewing.
I apologize for drawing the above parallels, I understand ki yeh koi zyada creative easter eggs nahi dhoondh nikaale mainey, its just something I couldn’t help doing, also considering how close together both the films have released. But coming back to my original point, the people in Asteroid City are real and relatable, once you allow yourself to look beyond the Nolan-esque turns of the screenplay.
In one of those triple role-seeming parts, Scarlett Johansson is an actor playing Mercedes Ford. Mercedes Ford is hired by Conrad Earp and his director Schubert Green, to play Midge Campbell. Midge Campbell is the mother of one of the award-winning kids in Asteroid City but is also an actor who spends most of her time in the play talking about her acting. It is anyone’s guess why Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola have padded this character with so many layers, but I’m assuming it’s their attempt to highlight the absurdity of the acting profession. When your literal job is to be untruthful and pretend, yet the very nature of the job requires you to bring honesty to it, derive from lived experiences, where does one draw a line? When Midge complains about the desert heat and says she’s wilting like a petunia in response to which the teenager replies, humans don’t wilt, and Midge says, almost to herself, don’t they? Who is saying the line, Midge or Mercedes? Augie the war photographer, whose triplet daughters all have celestial names, is actually a gay actor Jones Hall in a relationship with Conrad Earp. Is he mourning the loss of a wife in the play, or a tragic loss in his real life, you decide.
Aside from being a movie about the power of storytelling, Asteroid City also is Americana. Two characters are named after Presidents, Woodrow and the sitting president from the time the movie is set, Dwight, who also gets a whole song sequence — the character Dwight, not the president. Also, despite my VERY Indian sensibilities, I don’t think naming characters after major American brands was coincidental, Ford, Campbell, Stanley, Kellog, Gibson, a planet named Magnavox 27, literally the name of a TV sold in the 50s probably on which the show is being watched. Maybe I’m reading too much into it because there is also the German Steenbeck and Mercedes, but maybe I’m not because there is a WHOLE monologue by a cowboy about how “aliens” are good and because they’re culturally different from us doesn’t make them bad. We are also told that the director of the play is the very German-sounding Shylock Grzworvszowski, an immigrant who changed his name to Schubert Green. The actor playing the alien, I will let you discover who the actor is when you watch, says he doesn’t know what he’s a metaphor for, as Schubert walks by him. I admit the subtle subtext here wasn’t something I caught on my first viewing, but the second time I watched, it hit me harder than I care to admit.
On some level Asteroid City is also nihilistic, reminding you how pointless pretty much everything is, despite the busyness of it all. After an alien appears and steals the meteorite, the whole place is shut down and put under quarantine. Wes Anderson said at the Cannes post-screening press conference that he perhaps wouldn’t have written this if we weren’t actually experiencing a global pandemic at the time. And just like the existential crises nearly all of us went through in 2020, the film is also wondering ki kisi bhi cheez ka point kya hai? You’re shown an unexplained car chase with people shooting at each other, for no reason, except its America, and people just have guns. A road runner appears going meep-meep like the cartoon, vending machines sell you a soda, cigarettes, martinis, and real estate all the same time, and yet when the quarantine lifts everything goes back to normal, like none of this even happened like they didn’t see an actual alien land among them.
Oh and what a group of people he has in place to express this. Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Maya Hawke, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Steve Carell, Edward Norton, Jeffrey Wright, three-four MAJOR superstar cameos, it’s like people could sense an actor’s strike on the horizon because, between this, Oppenheimer and Barbie, half of Hollywood has had gainful employment until recently.
Wes Anderson’s visual style has always been precise, the peculiar way in which actors in his movies perform is comically measured, and controlled, Not a single hand movement is extra, no one even shrugs their shoulders out of time. And yet, Asteroid City unfolds like a dream almost. You’re the playwright imagining a world that doesn’t exist, one detail at a time, and bringing it to life when you awaken. In one of the more bizarre sequences, a whole group of actors, chant “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep” as though in a trance, and by the time the sequence arrives in the film, it can mean 50 different things, ranging from does one need to “wake up” against government control before its too late to simply the importance for a long night’s rest for the creative brain.
Again, you decide. The movie is in theatres, I dare say it’s been designed to watch at least twice, toh time nikaal ke, mere kehne par, do baar dekhna.