“They always come out.”
Wes Anderson’s movies have achieved an admirable dual feat: both the esteem of internationally recognized auteur sensibilities and box office dependability, the flourish of vibrant colors and bankable stars unfailingly drawing in audiences across all demographics. The oldheads and the youths will undoubtedly find someone to latch onto, no The Office fan or ‘80s movie aficionado too big to deny the appeal of pointing out “Michael Scott in a visor” or “Matt Dillon, making a big screen comeback.” Zoomers can appreciate Maya Hawke doing a little dance with the pride that comes with the parasocial gatekeeping of Netflix teen show alumni, and the little weirdos will turn up for the paltriest glimpse of Goldblum or Dafoe. There's even Fisher Stevens of Succession fame in a role that begs nothing but his presence. All of Anderson’s casts have been impressive, but it could be argued that Asteroid City comes the closest to being distracting.
That said, he doesn’t recruit *just* anyone. His reliable right-hand men – Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Tilda Swinton – always get their big moments without concern about whether general audiences can put a face to a name. Recently, he’s pulled Jeffrey Wright onto the train, an admirable secret weapon who, in Anderson’s hands, has been molded into the voice of nostalgia and authority in the WACU (Wes Anderson Cinematic Universe), and the undisputed MVP of his last two efforts.
Amazed as I was by the perfection of the camera’s swift dolly slides, 360-degree rotations, and frame after frame of zooms that inexplicably manage to create another picture within a picture, I did my best to focus on the dialogue. The aesthetics are often enough for a world this specific; the film’s narrative framing device jumps between three levels of script conception, on-stage production, and three-dimensional rendering of the film’s fictional play as it would appear in a movie (the latter shot in color and an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 to help distinguish it). I admit that I occasionally struggled to keep up with such a layering device, especially with this big of a cast. Nonetheless, I refused to settle for surface-level impressions of stop-motion alien spaceships and gleeful kicks upon noticing actor reunions (although, if anyone cares, seeing Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber from The Daytrippers bicker was my personal favorite).
What I saw in this movie – and mind you, I’ve only seen it once, due to a stubborn predilection to sharing only first impressions when writing reviews – is a fable about parenting.
There’s a hefty cast of kids in this movie. In the opening credits, all of their respective actors are listed together in a chunk of smaller text. Although Anderson’s movies are often geared toward adult audiences, quite a few movies in his filmography have examined young outsiders and their relationship with authority figures. Obviously, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is the clearest example of that, but there are touches of it in Rushmore (1999), Isle of Dogs (2018), and, intergenerationally, in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). In these movies, precocious kids push back against adult worlds.
In Asteroid City, the five 15-year-olds waiting to be awarded for their outsized contributions to scientific engineering are geniuses, plain and simple. Their parents, in contrast, range from impassioned and defensive to bored and disinterested. The principal duo consists of widower Auggie (Jason Schwartzman), a desensitized war photographer, and his brainiac son Woodrow (Jake Ryan). Their female counterparts are film actress Midge (Scarlet Johansson) and her gifted daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards).
There is some problematic romantic intermingling between both duos, which writers just can’t seem to resist when given the chance to create “complex” dynamics (aka vaguely incestual – The Royal Tenenbaums does the same), but beyond that, the adults and kids are confidants for one another’s personal struggles that none can seem to articulate directly to the person who needs to hear it the most.
Auggie, whose wife died three weeks ago after a long battle with cancer, considers abandoning Woodrow and his 5-year-old triplet sisters with his father-in-law (Tom Hanks). Midge admits that Dinah is not her first priority because of her career commitments as an actress, and she envisions a tragic end to her life à la show business.
Woodrow is detached and awkward – clarified within the group of five hyper-intelligent kiddos to not be a result of intimidation, just timidity – and feels betrayed that his father didn’t share the news of his mother’s death sooner. Dinah is sick of seeing her mother’s face everywhere and being pulled along with her demanding schedule. However, Dinah clarifies, she loves her voice, and suggests that “she should do more radio.”
As Auggie grapples with his responsibilities to his children, he strikes up a habit of talking to Midge through their adjacent desert hut windows and running scenes with her. Midge, at first apprehensive about Auggie’s picture-taking habit, becomes charmed by the quality of his portraits. They bond over the guilt of being a bad parent, just as Woodrow and Dinah bond over having been emotionally neglected. At one point during a conversation with Midge, Auggie burns his hand on a hot plate for what seems like no reason at all.
In a moment of meta-clarity that resumes the stage production level of the film, Auggie’s *actor* leaves the soundstage and tries to figure out why the hell his character would do that. He goes out to the theater’s balcony and runs into the actress who was supposed to play his wife (Margot Robbie). She is acting in a different play because her one scene in Asteroid City was cut. He asks for some guidance, and she quotes the dialogue of their cut scene back to him, which ultimately reveals Auggie’s parenting anxieties in a brilliant twist on a characterizing motivational flashback.
Auggie has confidently asserted throughout the movie that his pictures “always come out.” In this conversation, however, the line is recontextualized as a comment on raising children. Even though his wife is no longer around and he feels incapable of carrying on without her, his kids are going to be okay. He just has to stick it out and love them the best that he can.
In a world where aliens have been proven real, the temporary inhabitants of Asteroid City feel existential about man’s purpose. In preparation for the world to come, Woodrow and Dinah try to figure out what meaningful international symbol they should project onto the moon using the impressive cross-lunar device Woodrow has invented. However, when the dust has settled from the second alien touchdown, the two instead decide to project their love: their initials W.S. + D.C., encased in a little heart. They embrace. It’s a naive and hopeful moment that affirms the film’s heart after two acts of Anderson characters' signature dry delivery, driving home the idea that no scientific discovery will outweigh the whims of the human heart.
Ultimately, Auggie and his father-in-law elect to let the triplets bury their unnamed mother’s ashes in Asteroid City, per their alchemy-inspired request. Although it is established that the pain of her loss will never be forgotten, at the very least the family is free to commence a new phase of their lives, her body returned to the world. The dots have been connected and her constellation honored. It's a moment of tranquility and acceptance, written in (and among) the stars.