Much like Rod Serling who introduced the original Twilight Zone science fiction TV series, Asteroid City is introduced by a neatly suited man in a 1950s vintage TV studio filmed in black and white.
We are shown on centre stage legendary playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) typing away as he creates his new production Asteroid City. Contrasting sharply with the opening scene, we see Augie Steenback (Jason Schwartzman) and his son and three young daughters arrive at this fictional city in vivid saturated colour. The desert city boasts of a population of 87 and consists of an observatory, motel, diner and garage set on the California/Nevada border next to an asteroid crater and a railway line that transects the highway.
The city is portrayed as a brightly illuminated cartoon that includes a small cameo for the Road Runner character straight out of the Looney Tunes cartoon series, who always outwitted Wile E. Coyote’s attempts at capturing him. Another cartoonish feature is the running gag of a gun battle between a police car chasing a gangster’s car. The police like Wile E. Coyote seem destined to be tricked and outrun. Even when Augie’s car breaks down in the city, parts of it take on a cartoonish life of their own. Another sign that human endeavour is prone to failure is the city’s unfinished road ramp that leads to nowhere, that can serve as an existential metaphor for our own existence on this planet.
Woodrow (Jake Ryan), Augie’s shy, intellectual and nerdy son is involved in a student Stargazer/Space Cadet science competition being held in the city that celebrates innovative technology. Compared to the gadgets made by the competitors we get the mushroom clouds of Atomic bombs being tested in the background, showing that technology and science have the potential to wipe us all out as well as being an aid to our continued survival. This is mixed with the paranoia of the US military when they fear an alien invasion from outer space at the site of the 5,000 year-old asteroid crater.
Augie, a war photojournalist, who always has a camera hanging from his neck, is still grieving for his recently deceased wife and his life, like Asteroid City itself, is at a crossroads. Meanwhile, Augie’s three daughters play with magic spells like a band of witches, who try to revive the ashes of their dead mother that are secured in a tupperware container. The actress who is meant to play their mother (Margot Robbie) does appear in a flashback scene about the play, but this is deleted from the final project.
Director Wes Anderson mixes the behind the scenes creation of Asteroid City with the film/play itself highlighting the artifice of filmmaking, using his trademark skill of employing deliberate camera movement and precise framing of scenes and characters, that detaches the viewer rather than providing an unthinking involvement in the story.
The mantra near the end of the film; ‘You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep’ underlines the point echoed by the film itself that we live in and perceive different multi-layered realities that range from pure fantasy to the harsh reality of physical existence. Like the citizens of Asteroid City who on seeing an atomic bomb mushroom cloud shrug their shoulders and say ‘Another atom bomb test.’ For them life goes on despite war, death and cosmic encounters.
Reviewed by Nigel Watson