I wanted to be a scientist when I was little. I really, really did. When I was in high school, I wanted even more to be a scientist. To maybe find something no one else had found, even if it was as menial as a trivial adjustment to how much energy our long-distance grids can retain. I dreamed about it through college, and I even have a Masters of Science degree.
I am now 30 years old and I have never worked a day in my life as a scientist. I think I am still one at heart, though. Asteroid City has made me remember why I loved science so much as a kid, and why it is something I must still make part of my life.
Asteroid City is a Wes Anderson film through and through. Everything you’ve come to expect from his previous works like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom is on full display, for better or worse. His unmistakable wide shots with an empty third, his dialogue that is spoken a bit too fast and spaced out a bit too slow, his love for solid, unbroken color, and of course his unbridled love for metanarrative.
If you have seen one of his movies, you know the style I am describing, and it is unmistakable. I was drawn to Asteroid City because of my love of the retrofuturim aesthetic (as seen in Disney’s Tomorrowland, Wall-E, and the Fallout games), and I believe Anderson has captured the aesthetic better than any other filmmaker.
This may sound strange considering how much the film inspired me, but the metanarrative theatrical play of Asteroid City didn’t do a lot for me. The main crux of the film is framed by black-and-white story about a tortured Edward Norton writing the play “Asteroid City”. It’s actually not the traditional beginning and end bookends, but peppered in every 15-20 minutes while Bryan Cranston narrates the goings-on.
I won’t say this kills the pacing of the film, because it doesn’t, but I don’t think Anderson uses this time wisely. While I understand what Anderson is looking for with this metanarrative, I think he spent much more time on it than was needed to communicate the intent, although admittedly he does effectively communicate his theme through it.
I have never seen Jason Schwartzman in a leading role before – I may be wrong, but I believe this is actually his first – and I must say I was damn impressed with him. His “actor” in the play justifies a the oddities about his acting style, and I found him a believable trash bag dad. Scarlett Johansson takes up the mantle of the other lead, and her romantic chemistry with Schwartzman is simultaneously believable, unhealthy, and something the audience won’t mind if it goes nowhere. The teen actors pull their weight well, although I wouldn’t call any of them a breakout performance, and Tom Hanks pulls out what is in my opinion one of his best characters ever. And hey, you cannot go wrong with Bryan Cranston narrating your story.
I’m dancing around the main story of the film because I believe it should be a surprise, and the only thing I can think to do is write a Netflix-like description to hide what it’s actually about. How’s this? “A recently widowed father gets more than he bargained for when a remote desert town experiences a world-changing event.” That’s the best I can do unfortunately, you’ll need to see the film before you can squeeze any more out of me.
Asteroid City’s theming centers around an interesting intersection of faith and science, but not in a religious context. I mean faith in the sense that humans have faith in the way things are and should continue to be. Life happens when that faith is interrupted. I heard many years ago one of the classic “two kinds of people” sayings, and it’s one I’ve found to be increasingly true every day I’ve lived. There are two kinds of people in the world; those who say “I don’t know”, and those who say “I don’t know, let me find out.” If you are, like me, a voraciously curious person, then do I have a knockout film for you here.
Beyond the strange metanarrative of “the play” in Asteroid City, I think it more importantly re-sparked that part of my soul that used to care about what was unknown. And finding the unknown, or proving that it was indeed unknowable. I don’t miss the huge lab reports, dozens of annotations, and stress of publication deadlines from grad school. But I do miss wondering what I didn’t know. I think we could all stand to be a little more curious.
I recommend Asteroid City for both scientists by trade and scientists at heart.