Wes Anderson’s films are characterized by their delightful blend of cinema and architecture accompanied by strangely fascinating color palettes conveying the emotional overtones of the characters. All of his movies have a grain of eccentricity, making them unique. Wes Anderson’s latest, Asteroid City (2023), is replete with Beckettian absurdity with a tinge of magic realism and existentialism.

The Theatre of the Absurd is a Post-World War II designation for particular plays of absurdist fiction written by several primarily European playwrights in the late 1950s. Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, and Eugène Ionesco first popularized this writing style. Anderson’s Asteroid City can be placed in the same context. The film commences with a TV host introducing a televised production of a play named “Asteroid City” by the famous playwright Conrad Earp. This is a clear case of meta cinema or meta-realism as the TV host announces at the beginning of his introduction that “Asteroid City doesn’t exist.

It is an imaginary drama created expressly for this broadcast”. Metarealism was born in Russian poetry and art and was first used by Mikhail Epstein. The term refers to meta conscience, which means beyond physical consciousness, beyond a subjective polarized view of reality. In all referring to the fluidity of reality, Anderson’s Asteroid City breaks the fourth wall multiple times throughout the film. The film actively blurs the lines between the play it depicts and the movie the audience perceives. At times we see one of the actors playing the titular characters named Augie from the play, meeting the playwright Conrad Earp and asking him, “Why does Augie burn his hand on the Quicky-Griddle?” to which the playwright replies, “Well, I don’t even know myself to tell you the truth,” thus depicting a sense of bewilderment, one of the chief traits of absurdist plays.

The play is set in the 1950s, in an Arizonian desert replete with cactuses, in a tiny town named Asteroid City which is quite similar to the setting of Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” where the play opens with two bedraggled acquaintances, Vladimir and Estragon, meeting by a lifeless tree. An ensemble of characters march towards Asteroid City for Junior Stargazer Convention. The plays of the Absurd Theatres focus primarily on existentialism and express what happens when human existence lacks meaning or purpose and communication breaks down.

The playwright, actors, characters, and the director of the play behave like the characters of absurd plays in various instances. The playwright doesn’t know what he intends to do with his play. The play’s director Schubert Green affected by the crisis in his life, can’t comprehend how to end the play and what it means to convey. The actors are weary, and in a particular scene, we see the actor who plays Augie during his brief interaction with the director Schubert Green telling him, “I don’t understand the play.”

A sense of disillusionment encompasses everyone in the film and the play within the film, which echoes the disillusionment people faced during Cold War or post-World War II America. All absurdist plays reflect this predicament of modern man. Magic realism or magical realism paints a realistic view of the world while also adding magical elements, often blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. This genré was popularized in the works of  Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many Latin American authors. Traces of magic realism is found in Anderson’s Asteroid City in the appearance of the UFO above the crater from where an alien emerges and steals a fragment of the meteorite that created the crater.

While the stargazer honorees and Dr. Hickenlooper make rigorous attempts to contact the alien, love blooms amidst this mess between the war photojournalist Augie and the famous actress Midge Campbell who was apparently going through a midlife crisis, between Augie’s son Woodrow and Midge’s daughter Dinah who were both members of the stargazer honorees, between the young school teacher June Douglas and Montana who was the leader of a cowboy band, however, they are all tied together by a sense of grief or void, which becomes evident in a certain scene between Augie and Midge, where Midge tells Augie, “I think I see how I see us… Two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of their pain because we don’t want to, and That’s our connection.”

Under the garb of absurdity, Asteroid City unfolds the fragmented worlds of its playwright, actors, characters, and the play’s director. Augie and his father-in-law Stanley implicitly grieve over losing their wife and daughter. Midge grows weary of her fame and has been a victim of abuse, regarding which there are no direct references, but in her conversation with Augie, she does mention her past with violent men. Augie’s three daughters and his son Woodrow all try to cope with the loss of their mother in their own ways.

The director Schubert Green tries to endure the tumults of his broken marriage, and the playwright Conrad Earp conceals his relationship with the actor who plays the titular character of Augie. Though all the play and the film characters are stoic in their suffering, their fragmented world makes the film narrative fragmented. Asteroid City has no steady or fixed narrative; it’s similar to a Godard film where there’s uncertainty looming at every step, thus perfectly representing the degenerate world.

The actions of the characters are impulsive and cannot be comprehended, such as the sudden appearance of the TV host in the middle of the play telling, “Am I not in this?”, the three girls of Augie playing the role of witches casting spells, the motel manager working as a real estate agent and repeatedly asking the juice preferences of everyone in the play. Like an absurd play, the absurd in Asteroid City takes the form of man’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning or man as a puppet controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces.

Wes Anderson's Asteroid City

The quarantine imposed by General Gibson that entraps everyone in the Asteroid City symbolizes their entrapment in this splintered world from which they cannot break free. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon seek out the meaning of their life by waiting for someone unknown(Godot), who never arrives. The characters in Asteroid City similarly wait for something oblivious, searching for the purpose of their lives. Still, ultimately they cannot fathom it, and therefore they return to their same chaotic world.

The reappearance of the UFO to return the meteorite fragment at the moment when Gibson is about to end the quarantine, followed by the raucous anarchy created by the children, scientists, and parents who revolt using the honoree’s inventions to overpower the military, is very analogous to the circus depicted at the ending of Federico Fellini’s “Eight and a Half.” In “Eight and a Half,” the protagonist Guido, a director, aspires to make a science fiction film that includes thinly veiled autobiographical references. But he fails to make it as his desires hinder his craft. Similarly, in Asteroid City, the playwright Conrad Earp couldn’t successfully establish what he actually wanted to depict through his three-act play and an epilogue. In both cases, their creations gradually take the form of a circus.

Anderson uses monochrome and color cinematography to portray the distinction between the world in the film and the world of the play within the film. He used color cinematography to depict the play, which resembles a distorted dreamland. For instance, we wonder whether the play really exists or is it just a dream, mainly when the TV host introduces us to the special seminar scheduled at the playwright’s request, where he talks about making a scene where all his characters are gently hypnotized into the deepest, dreamiest, slumber of their lives.

Subsequently, the actors go through a shared experience of a bewildering and bedazzling celestial mystery. The playwright seeks suggestions as he doesn’t know how to write it, and a pupil of that seminar who later plays the character of Augie in his play stands up to reply, “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” Anderson deliberately uses monochrome cinematography to depict the world outside the play, which is closer to the reality of our world because our life can be best summed up into equal shares of black and white.

Absurdism and Existentialism go hand in hand in Asteroid City. Existentialism is evident in Midge Campbell’s utterance, “Was I ever there?” while she was rehearsing for a film. In a certain conversation between Clifford, a junior stargazer awardee, and his father, J.J. Kellogg, the father asks his son, “Why do you always have to dare something?” Clifford replies, “I don’t know, maybe because I’m afraid nobody will notice my existence in the universe. “. Like Midge and Clifford, all the characters, in some way or other, go through an existential crisis in Asteroid City, which is manifested through their untoward actions.

Influences of Dadaism which was an art movement of the European avant-garde society in the early 20th century( the movement consisted of artists who rejected the logic and reason of modern capitalist society instead expressing nonsense and irrationality), can also be found in Anderson’s creation of this particular film.

Eventually, Satyajit Ray has a massive influence on Anderson. Wes Anderson explicitly paid homage to Ray first in his 2007 film “Darjeeling Limited” where throughout the film, he used Ray’s background score and depicted trains in the same manner Ray depicted in “The Apu Trilogy” thereby deeply rooting his film in Indian culture and philosophy similar to Ray’s filmography. In Asteroid City as well he pays tribute to Ray by recreating a scene(that particular scene of a memory game played between junior stargazers) from Ray’s “Aranyer Din Ratri (1970)“.

The structure of an absurd play is circular, with the finishing point the same as the starting point. Asteroid City perfectly abides by this aspect of absurd plays. The play begins with Augie’s arrival at the Asteroid City with his family and ends with him leaving with his family from the Asteroid City. Both the beginning and end of the play (similar to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which begins with Vladimir and Estragon waiting near a tree and ends in the same manner) take place in a cafe where Augie gives the same order, “five orders of flapjacks and a black coffee” and asks the same question, “Who needs to pee?”

Dysfunctional families and the subversion of the children-adult paradigm that echoes Victorian childhood are typical features of Wes Anderson’s films. Be it the Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, and Asteroid City, we see children as victims of dysfunctional families undergoing identity crises, trying to rediscover themselves and establish their individualism in their own way. All the junior stargazers, therefore, in Asteroid City, delve deep into their astronomical world, searching for their will to live, trying to find their purpose in life.

Asteroid City (2023) narrates a tale of cosmic wilderness, suffering lurking in the mystery that engulfs the film. Still, most importantly, it subtly refers to nuclear threats encountered in post-World War II America through the atomic bomb tests depicted at the beginning and end of the play. Though Anderson’s Asteroid City is severely Post-Modern yet it’s his delightful venture into the science fiction genre.

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