Catch ‘Asteroid City’ For an Existential Deep-Dive: Movie Review

By: Michael Walsh

Film director Wes Anderson’s symmetrical style is so recognisable even AI has sought to imitate it.

From his beautiful colour palettes, detailed production design, and large ensemble casts, his work is beloved by many, but also not for everyone. His films are quirky, whimsical, dry, and offbeat, and have garnered critical acclaim. The celebrated director’s latest work, which reunites him with many of his regular collaborators and a few new faces as well, is yet another darling little feature, that has much on its mind, behind the stylised world it presents.

In 1955, students and parents from across the country gather for scholarly competition at a Junior Stargazer convention held in a fictional American desert town called Asteroid City. Amongst the guests are the Steenbeck family, headed by Augie (Jason Schwartzman) who’s wife has just died three weeks prior without his children’s knowledge. Initially intending to drop his three daughters at his father-in-law Stanley’s (Tom Hanks) home before returning to Asteroid City with his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan), plans go awry when their car breaks down in the town, stranding them.

Augie is then forced to call Stanley to come and collect his granddaughters, as he waits with his son for the convention. It is whilst waiting that Augie comes to meet Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a Hollywood starlet whose daughter is also one of the competition entrants. From here, we come to meet an ensemble of the townsfolk, other parents and their children, a band of cowboys, the military sponsors, and a school class on a field trip. Everything changes when an alien arrives, steals the meteor, and leads to the entire town being quarantined until further notice. However, the entire story is actually a play that is now having a documentary made about it’s production, with the two narratives intertwined.

Asteroid City movie stills
Above: Scarlett Johansson in Asteroid City.

A Play Within a Documentary Within a Film

This is potentially Wes Anderson’s most meta-narrative film, with the audience watching a play within a documentary within a film. We are the ultimate observers of a story centred upon observation of the known and unknown as the film ties together the mystery and wonder of science with deep philosophical ruminations on life, death, purpose, and faith. Wes and co. ask questions like “are we alone in the universe?”, “what will be remembered for?”, “do we ever really know anything for certain?” and centrally, “what is the point of my life?”. Schwartzman’s dual role as Augie Steenbeck, and the actor playing him, both have this existential crisis as they seek to understand who they are in the grander scheme of things. This parallels the group of Junior Stargazers who are coming of age when scientific discoveries are changing the world they live in, and how people understand the universe.Asteroid City movie stills

Not only is the film bursting with questions, but it is also bursting with colour. Anderson’s consummate craftwork is an absolute visual delight, and even when the story gets confusing or muddled, audiences will still likely remain engaged by the sheer intricacy of the sets, the stylised cinematography, and snappy score. The cast is also exceptional, with no weak links among the massive ensemble. Even the smallest roles feel purposeful, and the larger players deliver fantastic well-rounded characters.

Overall, Anderson’s latest work is a delicately layered film that should entertain audiences with its wit, humour, and coming-of-age tale, amidst also raising deeper existential questions through its framing device, and the broader experiences of its characters.

Reel Dialogue: Is Heaven Real?

Asteroid City movie stills
Above: Steve Carrell in Asteroid City.

Upon revealing that his wife and their mother has died, Augie tells his son Woodrow, “Let’s say she’s in heaven, which doesn’t exist for me, of course, but you’re Episcopalian”. It’s a line played off for laughs, but it underlines a key theme in a film that focuses so much on life, death, and what exists beyond the stars. Everyone in the movie finds themselves wrestling with the reality that they aren’t alone in the universe and a feeling that they have some greater purpose. Whilst the film ends with Woodrow telling his father he is now an atheist, numerous characters from Augie’s dad, Stanley, to a student on a school trip, pray at moments in the film.

For the Christian, these existential questions have simple answers. The Bible clearly teaches about our purpose, our origins, our Creator, and His Creation, which is the universe and everything in it. The Bible also teaches us that the things of this world do not last, and instead implores us to look to the Heavens, to our Creator, to find meaning, and everlasting life in His Son, whom He raised from the dead, and who ascended into Heaven and is now preparing a place there for those who believe and trust in Him.

Colossians 3:2 – Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

If you want to discuss the existential questions posed in this review, reach out to us at Third Space. We would love to chat with you about this and more.

Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.

All images: Movie stills

About the author: Michael Walsh is a Missions Engagement Minister in Sydney, and an avid film fan. His love of film is surpassed only by his love of God, and his desire to make the Gospel known.