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Wes Anderson presents a stylized play within a play in Asteroid City

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

Asteroid City from quirky filmmaker Wes Anderson offers its audience an avant-garde narrative about science-minded genius children at a Junior Stargazer conference in a place that looks like a New Mexico desert town. This is Anderson’s tribute to UFO perceptions and mythology. The film begins with Bryan Cranston as a television announcer. He is presenting a new teleplay. It is 1955, so we see a screen that is at an old-fashioned aspect ratio of 1:33:1 and images that are in black and white. Soon the aspect ratio switches to widescreen and vivid colors appear. 

It’s the latest feature film written and directed by Anderson and co-written by Roman Coppola. Working alongside them to create a stunning atmosphere was visual effects artist Jeremy Dawson. As with previous works of Anderson-- The Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, viewers are challenged by a screenplay that is quite out of the ordinary. In Asteroid City, a play is being performed on TV while its text is being played out in an imaginative form of real life. But it’s not real life; it doesn’t look like real life. The blues and golds are crisp and artful, sets are painted and there is plenty of animation. 

So there are two versions of the action going on – the teleplay which also is a stage play that we are told ran 785 performances. Also there is the color version where events of the play are being performed. One text, one or more characters, comment occasionally on the other text, fellow characters. There is a formal term for this kind of parallel or multi-texted screenplay. It is “metatextual.” 

The actors are not animated, except for an alien monster performed in part by Jeff Goldblum and there are so many favorite movie stars in the cast. Some of them are Anderson regulars. In the cast are Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Maya Hawke, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Live Schreiber, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, and Steve Carell, and other familiar faces. 

One of the teenagers playing a Junior Stargazer, Jake Ryan, stands out. He first appeared in an Anderson/Coppola film, Moonrise Kingdom, when he was about eight years old, and has played in their films through the years. He is entering adulthood now, and it will be interesting to see where his career will lead him. 

In the storyline, the Junior Stargazer convention has attracted a wealth of brilliant youngsters who have inventions to share with attending scientists and military personnel. Among the parents of these prodigies are Schwartzman as a recently-widowed combat photographer and Johansson as a movie star who lives for fame. Hanks, in a role that originally was Bill Murray’s, plays a granddad to Schwartzman’s motherless brood. I have heard that Murray had to step down when he tested positive for COVID. 

It was difficult to enter this imaginary world, despite the talented cast and offscreen creators. So much fast-paced monolog and dialog... and overlong, uninteresting speechifying. However, I settled in and am pleased that I did so. While some of the complicated narrative is baffling, there is more than enough creativity and meaning to make it a worthwhile viewing. The multi-text narrative style and avant-garde approach grew on me. 

At the end of Asteroid City, viewers hear repeatedly, “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” That refrain is carried over in song as the final credits stream. I wanted to nod yes, in full understanding of the meaning, but once more I was baffled. Hmmm. Perhaps this film calls for a second screening. 

Asteroid City can be seen on Prime Video, included with Amazon Prime, and on disc.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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