You Can’t Wake Up If You Don’t Fall Asleep: Asteroid City (2023) - Reviewed


Images courtesy of Focus Features

There has been an ongoing debate over Wes Anderson's distinct style in the past few years. Overall, there are few directors with an aesthetic as recognizable as his, and even people who only watch a few films can distinguish his work from others. It's easy to say that all of his movies look the same and call it a day, but the more astute cinephile will catch that his quirkiness has been evolving over the years, slowly transitioning from deadpan twee to something more complex and, in some ways, darker. Part of that is most likely due to Anderson's aging, which has a way of reframing the world in a sadder light, but it could also be cultural osmosis, the current state of the world seeping into his worldview.

Asteroid City (2023) feels like the most experimental of Anderson's filmography, playing with form and narrative while maintaining his meticulous staging and execution. The story is framed as a television special about a play called Asteroid City. The television show is depicted in black-and-white 4:3 academy ratio, and the play opens up the aspect ratio to widescreen and adds color. The color grading is interesting; it looks like a postcard in an out-of-the-way gas station bleached by years in the sun. Asteroid City feels like a surrealistic, 50s-era town that exists in a vacuum in the desert. It's heavily stylized in the sort of way that Anderson fans will expect, with panning shots, symmetry, idiosyncratic characters, and intricately crafted set pieces.

Anderson utilizes an intentional Brechtian technique with the play aspect of the story because, in the film's universe, it was penned by someone trying to explore their feelings by writing it. The play follows a war photographer named Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), who is taking his children on a road trip to the Junior Stargazer convention, which is being held in the dusty desert vista of Asteroid City. His genius son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is being honored at the convention for one of his inventions. Throughout their stay at Asteroid City, some bizarre extraterrestrial events occur, changing the course of the convention and their lives.

The play has an unusual cast, and some characters play dual roles as the "real-life" actors outside the play. "Real life" is depicted through the lens of the fictional TV show hosted by a Rod Serling homage played by Brian Cranston. This serves as the behind-the-scenes of the play's creation, but it is also a fictionalized depiction of the events. Ultimately, the layers of meta-fiction start melting into each other until the third act where the lines become too blurry to tell what is real and what isn't.

At one point, the characters stop what they are doing and look directly into the camera, chanting, "You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep." A direct plea to the audience to cast aside their notions of what a film should be like and essentially go with the flow. You can only follow your artistic dreams if you give yourself entirely to the creative process. This theme also ties into dealing with grief and figuring out what your life means after losing someone close to you, whether through something as final as death or a relationship breaking up. While this sounds like a serious affair, Anderson never misses a chance to sneak in tiny moments of droll humor to break up the melancholy.

Asteroid City is Anderson's most impenetrable work, with many aspects that seem like they will only have meaning to Anderson himself. It is one of his most emotional films, with moments of pure sadness, childlike joy, and even a bit of horniness. Like life, it doesn't make much sense, but if one takes it momentarily, it tells the small quiet stories that unite us all. 

--Michelle Kisner