Asteroid City Craters

A road leading to a desert Description automatically generated with low confidence

Still from Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City.

In Wes Anderson’s latest film, Asteroid City, the writer-director manages the unlikely feat of producing a vision that is simultaneously pre- and post-apocalyptic.

In an Eisenhower-era Los-Alamos-meets-Area-51-meets-proto-Las-Vegas desert outpost the threat of nuclear annihilation literally hangs in the air. Slender mushroom clouds periodically rise from amongst the cactus and sand not far beyond the enclave—a motel, a diner, a garage, a stubby off-ramp that ends in midair, and an unseen army base somewhere beyond a checkpoint that is more a prop than proper hindrance.

Asteroid City began as a tourist attraction hoping to capitalize on the crater left behind by a beach-ball-sized asteroid enshrined like a holy relic from above. As explained by the motel manager (Steve Carell), the speculative investment certificates to be purchased for pocket change from a vending machine, Asteroid City is both boom and bust, one of many puns that drift through Asteroid City.

Down a skinny two-line road meant to conjure Route 66, brainy teenagers have road-tripped from across the Land of the Free with their single parents. They’ve come to Asteroid City to attend a Pentagon-funded science fair at which they will receive quirky awards from a blustery Army general (Jeffrey Wright). He’s surrounded by a GI-Joe-styled soldiers as well as shadowy operatives of the Deep State. From among these suits observant viewers will be able to pick out the character actor, Bob Balaban, put on permanent mute by Anderson. When furloughed from the Andersonian gulag, Balaban is always interesting on screen. But like so many others in this cameo cavalcade, Balaban is not a given a role by the director, but merely makes an appearance.

People barely move through this environment, if you can call it that. The most demonstrative actions undertaken by the movie’s central figure, the war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) are furrowing his brow and lighting his pipe. He operates his camera not with taught finger and eager eye but with a dispiriting, damaged leadenness. Flaccidly he brags that his pictures always come out, no mean accomplishment in Asteroid City, what with all the atomic particles flying around.

Scarlet Johansson’s Broadway-Hollywood starlet has also been dragged by her daughter (Grace Edwards) to the desert. Johansson’s Midge Campbell (merely one example of the onslaught of overdetermined, off-the-shelf names thought up by Anderson) is a mock-up up of 1950s femmes fatales—though she like, all others, is flat rather than fatal. Her motel cabin is adjacent to the photographer’s and they strike up a steely romance. Meanwhile their brainy offspring also begin halting experiments in summer love.

The prize-winning invention of Steenbeck’s son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) projects advertisements onto the moon. One of the other science brats (Aristou Meehan) musters a bit more energy and jumps off a lo-slung motel building. His father (Liev Schreiber), scowls, occasionally raises a fist, a cocktail or the ray-gun devised by his son.

In this stretch of desert there is no morning, afternoon, or evening, just day and night. One of those days Augie looks out his window and sees Midge utterly motionless in her bath, mouth and eyes open, pills strewn across the floor. But then the mortal silence is broken and she speaks and moves her head slightly. This scene only confirms that the characters are barely alive even when saying their lines and allowed their minimal movements. In Asteroid City the difference between life and death is notional. The landscape, fashions, faces, and food take on anemic, even cadaverous pastel hues as if bleached out by radiation emitted by cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s camera.

Even the family car has been immobilized. Steenbeck limped into Asteroid City in a Ford woody wagon with his science-geek teenage son, three younger daughters, and the Tupperware container that holds the ashes of his recently deceased wife. If we are to take the Eisenhower-setting as given, then the car should be brand new, not a rusting shell that suffers its death throes on the garage lift after the crusty mechanic (Matt Dillon) replaces a single part about the size of a grasshopper. Except for an animated roadrunner that dances the funky chicken during the credits, there are no non-human animals in this picture.

The family Ford was born a junker. Everyone acts old, the cars and kids. An occasional high-speed chase that has nothing to do with the plodding plot races down the road through the settlement as if fleeing a classic film noir (High Sierra, Sunset Boulevard, White Heat, Detour—take your picks)—one of countless movie references that include Anderson’s own oeuvre. This eruption of pace merely bringing the languor into greater relief.

A game is played by the teens, but it’s a memory challenge conducted while sitting in a circle. Only the minds and mouths move—a decent description of a West Anderson movie.

The extraterrestrial spaceship that inevitably arrives to inspect the asteroid treasure moves in Newtonian lines. The animated, central-casting Alien is carbon-based life reduced to pure mechanism. This space being is as over-directed by Anderson as the earthlings.

That all these features and creatures are symbolic rather than “real,” is made clear by the intrusions of a narrator (Bryan Cranston), who hails from a black-and-white 1950s television variety show. In that world just behind the set (cf. final sequence of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) we meet the playwright (Ed Norton) who has written the movie/play we are watching. This celebrated author enjoys a man-to-man kiss with the G.I. who will go on to play Steenbeck in the show, i.e., the movie. In this backstage world we are pelted by more cameos from the likes of Anderson regular Adrien Brody as an Elia Kazan-like womanizing theatre director. Willem Defoe flashes by as a Lee Strasberg actor’s workshop guru— another full dose of Anderson irony, since Defoe is a cut-out not a character, a great actor reduced to muggery. It’s not just the scenery that seem like props. The people are props too. All is flattened in this world, even the dome of heaven.

The play-behind-the-play meta-narrative is about as deep and refreshing as the Asteroid City motel’s swimming pool. Spoiler alert: there isn’t one.

Yet one can’t attribute the remorseless pace and emotionally wasted people purely to the results of radiation poisoning, especially since this pathological lethargy is the default setting for Anderson’s movie. One begins to think that the apocalypse has already come. In this Not-So-Brave New World control is exerted not through invisible dictates of conformism and consumerism but by an unseen micro-manger—the autocratic auteur Anderson. He is the nuclear bomb that has rid this movie world (I hesitate to call it a cinematic one) of real people and feeling. So many great actors gather here but not one is allowed to do anything creative: impulse, wit, emotion have been bombed into oblivion.

The Three Steenbeck daughters, aged about five—are also along on the family trip. The trio endearingly riffs on the witches of Macbeth plying their trade not in gloomy Scotland but the desert Southwest (the film was shot in Spain). It takes time to irradiate the wit and joyfully zaniness out of the young. They are still zany and human.

Tom Hanks plays the big shot, golfing lawyer and father-in-law of Steenbeck. Even shackled by Anderson mirthless direction, his face shows signs dynamic emotion The oldest and youngest members of the cast retain some vestige of human agency and hope.

Aiding in Anderson’s post-apocalyptic designs is his longtime musical henchmen, Alexandre Desplat. His soundtrack holds up a bleak scrim to this colorful wasteland, as in his theme song and cue for the return of the Alien. From out of this bleakness emerge jangling winks of melody and Wagnerian leitmotivs not delivered with heroic zeal but played lifelessly on the piano.

Aside from Desplat’s furtive exercises in mood management, more calibration than composition, the soundtrack potpourri is stocked by tacky 1950 feel-goodisms and bogus Americana like Bing Crosby doing ‘The Streets of Laredo.”

Such is Anderson’s need for total, nullifying control that he even has to craft the lyric for the closing hymn to the kitschy cosmos ”Our Alien (Who Art in Heaven)”, sung by the Britpop virtuoso Jarvis Cocker in a hoedown mash-up replete with faux yodeling and other country music clichés and appropriations.

Anderson’s clockwork universe is not sublime but relentlessly cute. The crucial ingredient of control in his post-apocalyptic police state is sentimentality. The coifs, the kids, the camera, the country music are so precious that they don’t emit warmth, life, feeling, but snuff them out.

People should be sweating in the heat of the day in Asteroid City, but it is a cold, post-blast place. This is a movie not for the endtimes, but the aftertimes.

Anderson and his devotees mistake algorithm for art. His latest fabrication is so artificially intelligent that it’s no wonder the Alien went home, whistling his own song.

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com