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Asteroid City is a perfectly timed meditation on grief

Wes Anderson's first post-covid movie, Asteroid City, once again sees the cinema auteur examining grief. It's about the "cosmic force of our lost people", he says.

Scarlett Johansson in director Wes Anderson's Asteroid City

Scarlett Johansson in director Wes Anderson's Asteroid City. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Twenty-seven years into his idiosyncratic film-making career, Wes Anderson’s candy-coloured formalism has become so immediately familiar that anyone with an iPhone or a passing grasp of AI software can take a shot at making their own super-saturated TikTok parody. Yet there’s always been depths to be plumbed beneath that exquisitely symmetrical surface. Grief – and how people cope with it, or fail to – is central to Anderson’s films. Asteroid City, filmed during the pandemic lockdown and Anderson’s first movie to be released into a post-Covid world, is no exception.

The bulk of Asteroid City’s action takes place in the mid-’50s in the titular tiny desert town, mostly known for its huge meteor crater and observatory. Descending on the 87-person settlement are a group of precocious junior scientists who are being honoured for their inventions. They are about to be faced with an Earth-changing event that I won’t spoil here – but which ends up with all of them going into a military-enforced quarantine, and ultimately finding a new perspective on life.

Among those award-winning youths is Woodrow Steenbeck (Moonrise Kingdom alumni Jake Ryan), arriving with his father Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and his three younger sisters. Woodrow does not yet know that his mother has died. His war photographer father has yet to find the right way to tell him, much to the frustration of his father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks, making his Anderson debut).

Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in Asteroid City.
Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in Asteroid City. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Like so many of Anderson’s creations, Augie is grappling with grief and the responsibility of carrying on. In Rushmore, everything Schwartzman’s Max Fischer does comes back to the death of his mother; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou sees Bill Murray’s title character vow revenge for the death of his best friend; the events of Moonrise Kingdom are shaped by the bereavement of 12-year-old orphan Sam Shakusky; The French Dispatch is an episodic obituary. It’s mourning, and how families respond to loss, that drives the action and roots each seemingly whimsical tale in a universal emotional truth.

“We have these milestones in our lives, and particularly as you get older, the dead begin to pile up,” Anderson explains at the star-studded press conference for the film. “The power of these losses, it’s among the key milestones in our lives. That’s what the movies are about, I think. The cosmic force of our lost people.”

In Asteroid City, Augie connects with movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) over the emotional pain they’re both going through, and their reluctance to face it head-on. “We have the conversation about what connects us, and it’s the enormity of this grief,” says Johansson. “My character says, ‘I don’t want that feeling so I’m just gonna not have it.’ Which is so great and convenient. I mean, especially if you’re an actor. It’s perfect. You just do not have that feeling and erase it. That’s the world that she’s living in.”

“I think with grief, you know, my feeling is there’s no wrong way to feel,” Schwartzman adds. “You just feel the way you feel. And that’ll be OK. Just trust that.”

The complicating, borderline confounding, factor in Asteroid City is that all the action in the desert is a play – and one that was never staged. We’re actually watching a TV documentary about that play, with Bryan Cranston as the Rod Serling-style host. When Cranston first saw the script, he confesses his first thought was, “What does it mean?” He had to read it a couple of times to get to grips with it, describing it as a “kind of a Russian doll”.

Bryan Cranston stars as "Host" in Asteroid City.
Bryan Cranston stars as “Host” in Asteroid City. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

With its absurdly packed ensemble cast (I’ve not even yet mentioned Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Hope Davis, Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Jeff Goldblum or Maya Hawke) and intricate framing devices, Asteroid City is certainly very Wes Anderson. Whether you think that’s a good thing or not, you’ve likely already decided. The attention to detail remains intense. Jeffrey Wright’s recollections of spending four hours doing 60 takes to nail one tiny insert scene, in which he takes a gun from his holster, will either draw you into its charm or prove all of your worst assumptions about Anderson.

But if there were ever a time when we need a dreamlike meditation on grief, it’s now. In the last few years, we’ve all been through a major trauma. Many of us have lost someone. We’ve all been forcibly detached from those we love. While Asteroid City addresses none of that directly, Wes Anderson creates an imaginative space to obliquely explore where – and who – we are, in the wake of painful experiences. As Cranston says: “We can only take a glimpse into the head of Wes Anderson. We can’t live there. That’s his domain. So we can only visit.”

Asteroid City is in cinemas from 23 June

Asteroid City Exhibition runs until 8 July at 180 Studios, 180 The Strand, London. Tickets and information available here

@laurakaykelly

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