Wes Anderson dressed in all white behind a camera on the set of a movie
Wes Anderson during the filming of 'Asteroid City' (Credit: Pop. 87 Productions LLC via IMDb).

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Deesmealz focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

It would be fair to call me a fan of Wes Anderson, the writer and director behind a collection of films loved by many a movie geek. I’ve seen and enjoyed just about all his work, save perhaps one or two titles, and I was eager to seek out his latest, released to theaters in late June. Yet, when I sat down to watch this newest offering, “Asteroid City,” something dawned on me.

For all my admiration of Anderson, I couldn’t recall what any of his films were really about. I remember plenty about what they looked and sounded like, and the actors who appeared in them, but I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in them, beyond maybe one or two sentences summarizing the basic setup.

YouTube video
An official trailer for ‘Asteroid City' (Credit: Focus Features via YouTube).

It may be that this is a feature and not a bug, as they say. Anderson’s films are defined by their visual craft, giving them a dependably distinct aesthetic that has long been imitated and parodied by content creators (and now even generative AI models). To a certain type of person, hearing the words “Wes Anderson” is nearly enough to trigger a sort of synesthesia, immediately conjuring an image of a carefully crafted scene, featuring a symmetrically arranged interior with a finely clad actor (or actors) standing exactly in the center of the frame.

Taking this line of thinking to its most reductive conclusion, it is almost as if Anderson excels at creating beautiful dioramas that just so happen to be used in making movies. To gaze upon them and recognize the details is almost its own reward.

As the final credits rolled on “Asteroid City,” I was left with a separate realization: it may stand apart as one of my favorites among Anderson’s films because of the way it confronts and engages with these very notions.

And though time will tell, I expect I will remember what happened in “Asteroid City.”

Three men stand in front of a desert town.
Steve Carell, Aristou Meehan, and Liev Schreiber in ‘Asteroid City' (Credit: Focus Features via IMDb).

Star Gazing

To be clear, “Asteroid City” sees Anderson leaning into his own stylistic tendencies more than ever. The titular city, actually a tiny, sparsely populated town in the middle of the American desert, exists above all to serve the director’s aesthetic aims, emerging in an exaggerated form that ceases to retain much representation of reality.

There’s verisimilitude at work here, to be sure, but it’s clear that the small scale of Asteroid City allowed Anderson to craft exactly the type of playground he needed for his film. Where he’s once applied this effect to grand hotels and row houses or enchanting train cars and submarines, he’s now able to expand the lens to fully realize an entire town (and the endless horizons that surround it).

Movie poster for 'Asteroid City.'
A promotional poster for ‘Asteroid City' (Credit: Focus Features via IMDb).

In that regard, you will get everything we’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson film in “Asteroid City.” If you’re a fellow fan, you know the drill. Countless frames of the film are like watching a vintage postcard come to life (something the film’s marketing does a good job capturing as well). The red rocks, cliffs, and craters, as well as a roadside café and motel all serve as a fitting backdrop for this, coming together as a fully realized and perfectly picturesque whole. The cast, meanwhile, is predictably stacked, the ensemble boasting top tier talent in both significant roles and short bit parts alike. The dialogue is dense and lyrical, often delivered in wry, deadpan fashion regardless of its substance or gravity. And the soundtrack — featuring a twinkly orchestral score alongside a curated collection of vintage country western songs — ambles along as a charming companion.

But what struck me most about “Asteroid City” (no pun intended) is how it interrogates the tireless commitment to some of these familiar features. Assuming a more introspective position, it begins to ponder the question, “What is all of this production design and craftsmanship really in service of?”

Intelligent Life

This is where I’ll delve into some spoilers about what happens in “Asteroid City,” so if you haven’t seen the film and would like to experience it without any foreknowledge, I’d encourage you to save this email for a later day.

Five teenagers in 50s style clothing stand behind a sign that says 'Junior Stargazing Convention'
Ethan Josh Lee, Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Zoe Bernard, and Aristou Meehan in ‘Asteroid City' (Credit: Focus Features via IMDb).

The story of the film begins in 1955 as a coterie of visitors converge on Asteroid City for a junior stargazer convention, held in this remote desert locale in large part thanks to the namesake asteroid and crater that are the town’s claim to fame. Things take a startling turn when a UFO and alien visitor descend upon the town in the middle of the convention’s centerpiece gathering. Much like Jordan Peele did with “Nope,” “Asteroid City” sees Anderson trying his hand at telling an alien encounter story, taking classic sci-fi mythology and filtering it through his own trademark style.

As is often the case with this subject matter, the alien angle amplifies the story’s existential themes, leading characters to examine their place and purpose in a vast, mysterious universe. Similarly, this results in the film landing in a more surreal place than Anderson’s previous work.

A second element that supports this existential, surreal direction is that “Asteroid City” is actually a story within a story. As the film begins, it is quickly revealed that what we are watching occur in Asteroid City represents a stage production, based on a script by a heralded playwright. As the primary plot advances in the desert, we experience occasional fourth wall breaks, learning more about the production and the people behind it, including some of the (fictional) actors who are playing the principal characters we’ve come to know.

Two men stand at a payphone beside a road
Jake Ryan and Jason Schwartzman in ‘Asteroid City' (Credit: Focus Features via IMDb).

This meta-textual approach is disorienting for much of the film, and its raison d'être isn’t immediately evident. But it showcases Anderson (and his co-screenwriter Roman Coppola) bringing the same fastidiousness he’s known for at an aesthetic level to the text and substance of the story; and it allows those two domains to reinforce one another in satisfying ways. Why does Asteroid City look the way it does, evoking the desert town ideal but exaggerating it to such extreme effect (so Wes Anderson-y, in other words)? Well, it’s a series of sets on a stage, so of course it would look like that.

Likewise, there is a scene near the end of the film where one of our main protagonists is grappling with his own performance in the fictional play. In discussing it with the director, they rattle off a series of remarks about his outward appearance, a fake mustache, an exaggerated eyebrow motion, and a trademark pipe. The concern with these things in particular draws a stark contrast to all the moments where the characters in the film have been pushing the protagonist to face his internal traumas and grief more intimately, while it forces us as viewers to delineate the artifice from the authentic in trying to understand this character before us.

All told, that grants a new level of purpose and depth to the usual, surface-level delights inherent in every Wes Anderson film.

In other words, just as Anderson fans might re-watch “Asteroid City” to catch overlooked eye candy in the corners of the frame, I expect they could also find new meaning in the narrative, facets of the plot or the characters that they might have missed on a first viewing.

Three men standing in front of a billboard that says 'Arid Plains Meteor, Closed Indefinitely'
Jason Schwartzman, Jake Ryan, and Tom Hanks in ‘Asteroid City' (Credit: Focus Features via IMDb).

Ultimately, “Asteroid City” is as meticulous as ever in its details but also deeply inexplicable at a foundational level. Just like our universe and our lives can so often be.

For this Wes Anderson fan, that’s a welcome new frontier.

Asteroid City is currently playing in theaters.

This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.

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