Asteroid City

Asteroid City

By: Adam Freed

Wes Anderson is a one of one filmmaker.  His visual aesthetic, bathed in muted tones and pastel dueling images, have set him apart from literally anyone else who has ever directed a movie.  Those who love Anderson, recognize that he may be the greatest embodiment of an auteur direction alive today.  Disciples of the church of Anderson share a protective rabidity of the director’s filmography unrivaled in the modern age.  Since his first feature release Bottle Rocket (1996) the writer, producer, director has captivated audiences with his distinct form of two dimensional moving art.  There is something entirely too simple in Anderson’s aesthetic that makes it uniquely recognizable to the casual moviegoer and simultaneously beloved by cinephiles who recognize how difficult it is to make things appear so effortless.  His masterful manipulation of color palette creates visually distinct two dimensional worlds playfully in pastelle or at times slyly sanguine.  The preciousness of Anderson’s art feels as if it is placed into a small symmetrical diorama to be held in the palm of one’s hand.  Avid defenders of the auteur’s style also connect on a deep emotional level to the dark thematic emotional plane on which his best work seems to exist.  A sense of the morose longing for human connection is veiled in the deadpan and humorous delivery of Anderson's hallmark dialogue.  There is only so much depth that can be bestowed upon characters in 2D, which is why his character building is appreciated as such genius.

The eleventh offering from Wes Anderson comes in the form of Asteroid City, a brilliantly constructed nesting dolls story format in which the story itself exists in two fictional worlds.  Anderson takes a structural risk, with debatable success, to tell his tale of a western nowhere town Asteroid City (population 87) first as a stage play, filmed in black and white using a 4:3 aspect ratio.  The play is then produced into a much larger and more expansive (relatively) film version of the play of the same name.  The film version of the story thankfully utilizes the entirety of the screen and provides canvas for Anderson to paint what may be considered his most brilliant and sophisticated imagery of his already laudable career.  The brick red desert floor pockmarked with cholla bushes and distant plateaus echoes that of Utah’s Monument Valley.  Perhaps as a call back to the western era of John Wayne’s Hollywood, a nod not too far fetched given the film’s setting in 1955.  In one frozen moment that may go down as the most visually striking in Anderson’s laudable career, the director sits his cast of pastel clad characters at long tables for a desert lunch and in relief of the midday heat provides a canopy of cucoloris (a device inserted to create patterned shadow and break up direct lighting) which bathes the image in a triumphant checkerboard of oppressive desert sun and the sweet relief of shade.  A hall of fame image in a hall of fame career, a nod to a bygone era, closer to Norman Rockwell’s Americana than anything captured on film.  Simply breathtaking.  

Critics of the auteur director are quick to point out that his films can place far more emphasis on visual imagery than on story and character development, a point that isn’t without merit in the case of Asteroid City.  While there is a comedic warmth found within the pessimistic world of this film, this is not the best offering of Anderson’s career but is far from his least fulfilled.  The box within a box format will leave some critics vindicated in their calls of style over substance.  To counter those claims however is the impressive level of writing required to place stars Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson, seemingly born to work with Anderson, into connective worlds in which they, as fictional actors, use their life experiences and traumas, to inform the performance that are fulfilled in the full color film version of Asteroid City. If this sounds overly complex, it is.  

Any cast that includes names like the aforementioned Johansson, Tom Hanks, Adrian Brody, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Steve Carrell and a sublime up and coming Maya Hawke, is going to earn the attention of the film going world.  Critics and fans of Wes Anderson will likely both walk away from the film feeling vindicated in their praise or damnation.  A stasis that seems just quirky enough to fit the odd and impressive career wake created by the one and only Wes Anderson.