Searching for Answers

Steve Carell, left, and Aristou Meehan in a scene from director Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City.” | Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Asteroid City
Directed by Wes Anderson
Focus Features

Review by Christine Havens

A young mother dies and the father, Augie Steenbeck, a war photojournalist, takes three weeks to tell their four children that she’s gone. Not only that, but he’s waited until they’re on a trip to do so. Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) sits with his children at a small motor court in the bare-bones desert town of Asteroid City somewhere in the American Southwest. He explains to Woodrow, the “Brainiac” teenager, and the three precocious triplets — Pandora, Andromeda, and Cassiopeia — that their mother isn’t coming back from the hospital. “Let’s say she’s in heaven,” he says, deadpan, with a Tupperware container of his wife’s ashes on his lap, “which doesn’t exist for me, of course, but you’re Episcopalian.”

This pivotal scene happens early on in Asteroid City, the latest creation of filmmaker Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom). The trailer, with its glimpses of aliens, atomic bombs, and doomsday, creates the expectation of a summertime sci-fi blockbuster. The film’s oddly bright colors, deliberately offbeat cinematography, and A-list ensemble cast add to that impression. However, like any truly good genre film, Asteroid City crosses multiple boundaries, exploring the anxieties and the questions surrounding human existence, taking inspiration from a wide variety of sources. 

Many of these sources can be found in a promotional pre-show flick called The Road to Asteroid City: Atmospheric Inspirations as Noted in the Book DO NOT DETONATE Without Presidential Approval. The extra materials, including previews for movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Some Came Running (1958), Hot Rods to Hell (1966), and The Misfits (1961), a commercial for a 1950s toy horse, and some original videos of songs from the soundtrack, lend charm to the moviegoing experience and important clues to what Anderson hopes to express.

Without giving too much away, because the joy of revelation is paramount in watching this film, the story follows Augie Steenbeck and his children to Asteroid City, which consists of a café, a filling station, a scientific/military installation, and a motor court, and through which one paved highway runs, crossed at one point by a railroad track. Mesas and saguaro abound, and there is a huge crater formed by an asteroid that struck the Earth in 3007 B.C. Other people have come for a convention, as five gifted, nerdy teenagers, including Woodrow Steenbeck, are being honored for their inventions as part of the town’s celebration of Asteroid Day. The group gathers in the crater for the ceremony and to view an astronomical event. It’s then that they experience an extraterrestrial visitation, complete with a glowing green flying saucer. The search for answers begins.

It’s 1955 America, and Anderson creates an eccentric, exaggerated mise en scène to lure the audience into his mind. He’s filled Asteroid City with Easter eggs and tropes from beloved science-fiction films. Every shot has purpose; the soundtrack adds to the movie’s allure and depth. Even the road runner has significance. The film’s cast is, like that of Some Came Running, “as big as its story.” The lavish ensemble — including Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Bryan Cranston, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Adrian Brody, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban — provides minimalist performances that give the characters auras of the ordinary in an extraordinary space. 

Aside from the lines about being Episcopalian (or not), this is an excellent film for seekers, no matter where one is in the journey. Anderson blends laugh-out-loud comedy with solemn moments of vulnerability that are often black and white rather than in color to create a film that explores faith and finding meaning in a world where death is always present, possibly imminent, and often out of our control. Through its emphasis on make-believe and playful storytelling, Asteroid City explores themes of loneliness, otherness, grief, and love. The movie becomes a hopeful apocalypse taking place in a “cosmic wilderness,” lifting the veil for a moment to assure the viewer that we can live within the mystery of life, that love matters, that we shouldn’t close ourselves off from each other. Like Anderson, we need to keep telling that story.

Christine Havens is a writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest. She is training to be a spiritual director in the Diocese of Texas. Her work has appeared on Mockingbird Ministries’ blog,, and Forward Movement’s AdventWord (2022).


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