Asteroid City: A Melancholy and Hopeful Parable for the COVID-19 Era

Steadfast like a pendulum, Wes Anderson bestows upon us, every couple of years or so, a film as refined and intricate as a layered confection, a three-dimensional opus for children, and a miniature abode. Throughout his career, Anderson’s exquisitely polished style has garnered diverse reactions: an ardent adoration from some, while others perceive it as a concentrated exhibition of trivial artistry. Even ardent admirers of Anderson’s earlier masterpieces like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” may feel estranged by his excessively intricate post-production methods, accusing him of fixating too intensely on form and structure, thereby neglecting the emotional essence that a film ought to possess.

Personally, I find myself oscillating between agreement and disagreement with these critiques. Anderson’s films often emerge from an obsession that intermittently resonates with the audience, leaving some impassive. I, for one, wholeheartedly reveled in Anderson’s homage to The New Yorker magazine and French New Wave cinema through the cinematic splendor of “The French Dispatch.” However, I found myself somewhat distanced from “Isle of Dogs,” his affectionate tribute to Japanese culture. I believe that many viewers encounter comparable sentiments when confronted with different Andersonian narratives.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect with which I diverge: Anderson’s films do not lack emotion due to their over-sculpted form. In reality, those with a rudimentary comprehension of artistic expression recognize that form is content, and form itself can be replete with sentiment. Anderson’s emotional investment in the stories he narrates is discernible in each frame, every directorial directive to his actors, every rhythmic camera movement, and each meticulously crafted musical score. While one may critique Anderson for his excessive self-awareness, scrutinizing his meticulous attention to even the most trifling details, it would be unjust to declare his creations as mere hollow vessels, possessing form but lacking vitality.

His latest opus, “Asteroid City,” remains a soul-stirring embodiment of Anderson’s distinctive style. However, it exhibits a more introspective quality compared to the whimsical and vibrant “The French Dispatch.” Set amidst a gathering of astronomy and science enthusiasts in the fictional western American city of “Asteroid City” during the year 1955, this film interconnects the intricate relationships among various families and groups of characters. They recount their histories and respond differently when confronted with the turmoil instigated by the arrival of extraterrestrial beings. Their lives transition from the ordinary to the extraordinary and back again.

Admittedly, this does not resemble a conventional narrative with a strong plot. Indeed, “Asteroid City” lacks a central story, devoid of the hurdles protagonists must surmount or the goals they must strive to achieve. Until its denouement, it refrains from providing the audience a conduit for release and catharsis.

So, what does this film truly encapsulate? I surmise that immediate comprehension will dawn upon you upon hearing the ensuing scenes. The lives of these individuals undergo a complete upheaval due to the advent of the aliens. All the children and their parents who partake in the gathering of astronomy enthusiasts find themselves isolated, confined to a small town, and subjected to various physical and psychological trials. Amidst this seclusion, people fret and engage in dialogues regarding the possibility of restoring normalcy to the world. Finally, when the quarantine is lifted, the aliens who previously visited Asteroid City to pilfer a meteorite return it within their spaceship, prompting the military officer present to promptly declare the reinstatement of isolation. This decision incites fierce resistance from everyone assembled…

Indeed, “Asteroid City” is, to a significant extent, a cinematic portrayal of life during the COVID-19 era. Anderson contextualizes the narrative in the 1950s, likely because that era resonates most profoundly with the recent years of global affliction. It epitomizes the pervasive mutual suspicion and even animosity among individuals and nations. It mirrors the opacity of information and the profound fear of external forces. The world lives in constant trepidation of impending conflicts and crises (in Asteroid City’s vicinity, the government perpetually conducts nuclear explosion experiments; meanwhile, on the city’s highways, sirens wail and the police engage in ceaseless skirmishes with gangsters). People find themselves confined by their circumstances, plagued by ennui, devoid of purpose, and contemplating the meaning of existence. At numerous junctures, “Asteroid City” serves as a disquieting reminder of the anxieties we have long forgotten amidst the epidemic.

Precisely due to its allegorical nature concerning the COVID-19 era, “Asteroid City” is veiled in an accompanying sentiment of loss and melancholy. The male protagonist, Auggie, grapples with the loss of his wife, uncertain of how to convey the truth to his four children who remain unaware of their mother’s demise. He struggles to navigate the anguish of his bereavement. The femaleprotagonist, Vera, is burdened by her role as a single mother, grappling with her own fears and insecurities while trying to protect her children from the harsh realities of the world. The film delves into the complexities of human relationships, the fragility of life, and the search for connection and meaning in a world that often feels isolating.

Anderson’s signature visual aesthetic is on full display in “Asteroid City.” Every frame is meticulously composed, filled with intricate set designs, vibrant colors, and symmetrical shots that create a visually stunning and immersive experience. The film’s production design and costumes evoke a nostalgic and dreamlike atmosphere, transporting the audience to a bygone era. The soundtrack, as always, plays a vital role in setting the tone and enhancing the emotional impact of the scenes.

In terms of performances, Anderson has assembled a remarkable ensemble cast, featuring both his regular collaborators and new additions. The actors bring depth and nuance to their characters, capturing the subtle nuances of their emotions and delivering Anderson’s trademark deadpan dialogue with impeccable timing. Their performances contribute to the overall charm and whimsy of the film.

As with any Wes Anderson film, “Asteroid City” is not without its detractors. Some may find the deliberate quirkiness and stylized nature of Anderson’s storytelling to be off-putting or pretentious. Others may long for a more traditional narrative structure with a clear resolution. However, for those who appreciate Anderson’s unique vision and his ability to create immersive and thought-provoking worlds, “Asteroid City” is likely to be a captivating and emotionally resonant experience.

In conclusion, Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” is a visually stunning and emotionally complex film that explores themes of isolation, loss, and the search for meaning. It serves as an allegory for the COVID-19 era, capturing the anxieties and uncertainties that have permeated our lives. While it may not adhere to conventional narrative structures, the film’s meticulous craftsmanship and the heartfelt performances of its ensemble cast make it a worthy addition to Anderson’s body of work.

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