What started as a thinly veiled apologia for colonialism spoke to this notion of what it meant to be American. It manifested itself when John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” just as it did when Judy Garland said, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Turner contended that Americans are a frontier people who are constantly exploring the unknown, but in Wes Anderson's latest movie, Asteroid City, the director reminds us that we are human beings, first and foremost.
Asteroid City is the 11th film from Anderson, the famed Texas auteur/director whose prior works include The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson’s films, which are defined by their twee storytelling and distinctively vivacious cinematography, frequently boast ensemble casts, commonly including Bill Murray, Luke and Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand and other recurring cast members.
This time around, Asteroid City has a who’s-who of frequent Anderson collaborators: Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton, just to name a few. There are also some A-listers making their Anderson debut in this film, including Margot Robbie and Tom Hanks.
Without going into painstaking detail, the movie looks at two universes (you can stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers): the universe of a playwright writing a play, and the Western frontier town (named “Asteroid City”) where the script's setting takes place. In the quaint little town of Asteroid City, Schwartzman’s stoically indifferent character (a war photographer named Augie) informs his three children that their mother has just died and does so with the bedside manner of a scalpel. Amid his grief, the oldest of those three children, named Woodrow (played by Jake Ryan), falls in love with a movie star’s (Scarlett Johansson) sardonic daughter Dinah (played by Grace Edwards).
Meanwhile, a Junior Stargazer Convention is taking place in Asteroid City, and all the townsfolk are left in a perpetual state of disbelief and lockdown as an alien (played by Jeff Goldblum) drops by and commandeers the town’s asteroid. As a schoolteacher played by Maya Hawke lectures her students about the solar system, questions about the alien persist.
Despite the paranoia and civilian angst, the characters all remain grounded and go through two emotions that are universal among all humans: grief and love.
In the former camp, Augie’s kids finally decide what to do with their mother’s ashes, which are left in a Tupperware jar buried in the sand, and in a surprising twist of sentimentality, Augie lets his inner-Spock take a backseat as he holds hands with Woodrow in a moment of shared grief.
In the latter camp, Woodrow’s crowning achievement (an invention that can project any image onto the moon) was first used to project the U.S. flag as a message to extraterrestrial life. This changes when Goldblum’s alien character pays another visit to Asteroid City, sparking terror, and Woodrow projects his and Dinah’s initials (W.S. + D.C.) onto the moon and embraces his love interest.
From the “Wild West” physical and spiritual manifestations to the unprecedented frontier that is outer space, American frontiersmanship is a central theme to Asteroid City.
Still, Asteroid City boasts quite a hodgepodge of 20th-century frontier tropes: roadside diners, old-timey 1950s gas stations with one pump, you name it. The universe the playwright creates also takes on quite a frontier spirit. The city’s motel (managed by Steve Carrell) has a vending machine that sells deeds to a half-acre of land in the desert town for just 10 coins.
From the “Wild West” physical and spiritual manifestations to the unprecedented frontier that is outer space, American frontiersmanship is a central theme to Asteroid City. The setting pays homage to tropes of the desert embodied in 20th-century fiction, whether it be a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western or even a Looney Tunes cartoon (a roadrunner that says “beep beep” makes an intermittent appearance throughout the film). Between the 1950s-built interstate diner and the old timey “Wild West” buildings, it nods to the clichéd towns and businesses made possible with the advent of railroads and the interstate highway system.
The frontier spirit of the 20th century as portrayed in television and film runs through Asteroid City’s veins and bone marrow, but it seems less like a love letter to these stereotypes and more like a respectful subversion of it.
The message that being human is greater than being a frontiersman is rather obvious, too. After all, Woodrow projected the U.S. flag onto the moon to send a message to extraterrestrial life. But that message changed in the end to the tune of what we as humans want more than we want to explore a new frontier: companionship. At first, Augie was more concerned with capturing the ravages of war and the times as a photojournalist than in being a father to three grieving children, but by the third and final act, he was their father first.
The American spirit may pride itself for its rugged individualism, but the human spirit knows that companionship makes us stronger. The exploration of a new frontier may define what it means to be an American, but sharing this cosmic fluke of an existence with the people we love and soldiering through life’s hardships with them defines what it means to be human. If we forget this, how are we any different from the alien?