Saturday 22 July 2023

The Golden Age Of Wes Anderson Is Twelve

Asteroid City may be Anderson’s first unambiguously genre movie, but for many science fiction fans, it feels like he’s always been one of us.

Wes Anderson's aesthetics have often harkened
back to the post-war era — the waning end of
science fiction's "Golden Age."
(Image via
Between the heightened reality of his cinematic style and his worldbuilding sets (gormengastian hotels and benthic exploration), his movies have always been on the edge of SFF. In addition, it’s easy to believe that Ender Wiggin, young Anakin, and Wesley Crusher would find a peer group among the socially awkward child prodigies who are mainstays in Anderson’s films.

On the surface, Asteroid City offers what fans have come to expect from Anderson; symmetrical framing, deliberate pastel colour palette, deadpan dialogue delivery, and dysfunctional family dynamics at a time of transition. It will no doubt be loved by many, hated by some, and possibly ignored by most Worldcon nominators.

As with his earlier films — such as The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Moonrise Kingdom — this latest offering provides a complex blend of quirky characters, played by a cult-like cast of actors (plus Tom Hanks and Margot Robbie) delivering whimsical and pretentious dialogue for a fraction of their regular incomes.

The setting for the story is the annual Asteroid Day stargazing event, which includes the Junior Stargazer convention. Here, five privileged, intellectually gifted teens receive awards for their space-related inventions. These relatively benign inventions become crucial to the success of the story’s plot arc, when an alien visit forces a quarantine that raises tensions.

And it’s the film’s child actors that move the narrative and, some might argue, steal the show.

It’s through the teenage characters that we see the strongest ties to science fiction, (although Tilda Swinton as the socially awkward, workaholic astrophysicist Dr. Hickenlooper also gives that thread a serious pull, with her lifelong commitment to “figuring out the math.”)
In a star-studded cast, Ethan Josh Lee,
Grace Edwards,  Zoe Bernard,
and Aristou Meehan still stand out.
(Image via

Framed on top of and interspersed throughout the main narrative of the film is a meta-analysis that neurotically overlays the existential angst of the playwright, played by a long-time Anderson favourite Edward Norton. This secondary narrative mirrors the motivations of the Junior Stargazers, and provides reflection on the very human need to speculate about the future and always strive to do better. To do your best and, unfortunately but perhaps most importantly, to steadfastly refuse to accept that it’s ok to stop and feel joy if you’ve achieved something that’s merely good enough. In order to drive this point home, an acting class in the secondary layer of narrative literally chants this mantra at the audience: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

To be clear, this isn’t a film for everyone. But we do see this same indefatigable quest for aspirational advancement everywhere in science fiction. The energy and motivation to seek something better is a prerequisite for most standard science fiction tropes. And, unsurprisingly, this drive is mirrored again, through the alien. The non-speaking character is a duty-bound bureacrat that travels from beyond our star system to steal, inventory, and return an asteroid. The part is played by Jeff Goldbloom, who is later shown smoking a cigarette backstage in the secondary narrative, muttering defensively about his role.

Famed fanzine editor Peter Graham once famously quipped that “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12,” and we might suggest that Wes Anderson shows an understanding of what that means at its core. Asteroid City depicts the childlike sense of wonder that is at the heart of science fiction fandom with respect and affection that could be read as a love letter to the genre.

It may be the best genre movie of 2023.

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