Asteroid City

Wes Anderson’s been described as one of the few true auteurs among movie directors.  That means a director whose control over the filmmaking process is so personal and unbounded he can be regarded as its author, in the same way a writer is the author of a book, or in the same way we might say someone is the author of their own misfortunes.

I quite liked Anderson’s early movies The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, but I didn’t join in the general adulation that attended his big success The Grand Budapest Hotel, because I think by then he was already starting to overdo the eccentricity and quirkiness that have made him the darling of the arty cinematic set. 

That’s the thing about being an auteur – it can work both ways.  In my view Anderson is definitely the author of this debacle.  I didn’t like it at all. 

Asteroid City is a hyper-coloured comedy sci-fi movie framed within a black and white documentary about a writer writing the play on which the movie is based.  How’s that for quirky eccentricity?  Is he trying to outdo Charlie Kaufman?

The movie is set in Arizona in 1955, in a whistlestop town famous only for being the site of an asteroid landing thousands of years ago. 

The documentary narrator introduces us to the town:  Off in the distance are silhouettes of famous desert landforms.  A half-built pedestrian ramp ascends halfway across the road.  There’s a diner, an auto repair business and a row of tourist cabins.   

A railway intersects the main highway at right angles.  Freight trains periodically race through, to the accompaniment of old 50’s cowboy hits.  A police car and motorcycle periodically chase a speeding car through the town. 

A father (Jason Schwartzman) arrives with his four children – a teenage boy and three small daughters.  They have with them the ashes of his wife, the children’s mother.  These are in a Tupperware container, but the father hasn’t yet told the children their mother is dead. 

Their car has just broken down and he takes it to the auto repair shop.  There is some elaborate jokey business with a mysteriously animated spare part, but the car can’t be fixed and he calls the children’s rich grandfather (Tom Hanks) far away in somewhere that looks like California to come and collect them. 

But it seems Asteroid City was their destination all along – or was it? – and they stay for the annual Stargazers and Space Cadets camp held inside the giant asteroid crater which is the town’s only tourist attraction.  There is a fenced-off entrance lane to the crater.  Like the half-built ramp, this appears to be a useless construction as all around is vacant space. 

Grandpa arrives, and so does a famous actress (Scarlett Johanssen) and her daughter.  There is some teenage love interest between the daughter and the teenage son, and some possibly flirtatious interaction between the actress and the father, but it’s hard to tell because the dialogue is so surreal. 

And asteroid rock remnant is still in the middle of the crater.  An alien comes in a spacecraft to steal it.  The alien is an animated stick figure with eyes and doesn’t speak, so God knows how Jeff Goldblum gets a credit for the role.  The army are there, running the show and making speeches.  There might be some satire going on here about 50s-style American military paranoia. Or maybe not.

The narrative from time to time moves from the saturated colour of Asteroid City to the noirish world of the writer and the narrator, and towards the end to the ‘normal’ world of actors rehearsing the play in the grimy theatre district of a big city.   

Asteroid City breaks the third wall, the fourth wall – every wall that’s ever been thought up by human showfolk to enable comprehension and clarity.  It breaks down the barriers of performance and drowns the lot in an incoherent soup of stylish surrealism and quirkiness for its own sake. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t figure out what the hell it was all about.  But the soundtrack was good.