Asteroid City shows why TikTok can never fully copy Wes Anderson

scarlett johansson, asteroid city
Why TikTok can never fully copy Wes AndersonUniversal

Wes Anderson has become one of the most recognisable filmmakers working today. The symmetry of the shots, the pastel colour palette, the star-studded casts, the deadpan delivery of dialogue and the artifice of it all — it's all identifiably Wes Anderson.

His style has even turned into a viral TikTok sensation, as users show their everyday lives using the distinctive approach of The Grand Hotel Budapest or The Royal Tenenbaums. The director doesn't want to hear anything about it. "I do not want to look at it, thinking, 'Is that what I do? Is that what I mean?'" he said in an interview with The Times.

Perhaps Anderson's lack of interest in people obsessing over his style is because, despite what haters might claim, his filmmaking is not all visuals without substance. Not for him at least.

That is especially true of his latest film, Asteroid City, a movie that intelligently explains what Wes Anderson is all about, in case you've ever wondered. It's a hilarious mix of Western, sci-fi, comedy and arthouse cinema that shows us how stories lead us to understanding who we are.

scarlett johansson, asteroid city

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Written by Anderson and long-time collaborator Roman Coppola, the story starts with a black-and-white TV special showing the making of a Broadway play, shown to us in (full colour) cinematic form. So, three stories inside one. The one that's deepest into the nested fictions – and the most important – is the "play" set in a 1955 US desert town where a Junior Stargazer convention is taking place.

Confused yet? Wait for it.

Within the play’s fiction, we follow recently widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) as he gets stuck with his four children in Asteroid City and waits for his father-in-law (Tom Hanks) to pick them up.

In that strange village, as General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) hosts the Junior Stargazer awards, Augie is witness to a world-changing event, alongside movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) scientist Dr Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), the motel manager (Steve Carell) and a mechanic (Matt Dillon).

Believe it or not, the cast also includes Bryan Cranston, Adrien Brody, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Rupert Friend, Willem Dafoe, Hong Chau, and Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke.

maya hawke, asteroid city

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Unlike previous movie The French Dispatch, all of these characters and their stories seem to be driven by the same force: the search for meaning in a meaningless world.

The script was written during the COVID lockdown and its influence is easy to see, since a quarantine situation leads to a certain loss of self for some characters. Johansson's actress, for example, even finds a new side-fictional story within the story as she memorises a script for her next work. Actors inhabiting characters that are actors inhabiting other characters... ad infinitum.

The adults in this world appear clueless, so it's children who seem to thrive in the unusual situation they find themselves in. Anderson gravitates toward their sense of wonder and the limitless possibilities of their imagination, as well as their acceptance of magic (and aliens) and their ignorance to the grimness of the world around them.

The presence of the roadrunner, which instantly brings to mind the famous Looney Tunes cartoon, plays into this childlike-wonder.

jake ryan, jason schwartzman, tom hanks, asteroid city

Asteroid City tackles more of Wes Anderson's recurring themes as well: isolation, otherness, feeling like an outsider or, as some of the teenage characters in the movie put it, being happier "outside the Earth’s atmosphere".

These outsiders find that their feelings are more universal than they thought. In the organised chaos that is Wes Anderson's universe, they are not alone.

Anderson is often criticised for his artificiality, but he cares deeply about these characters and fills them with relatable emotions, even if they act like they're in a different galaxy. Maybe what the director is trying to say, and what might be the key to understanding the essence of Asteroid City, is that some degree of fakeness and fiction can lead us to life-changing revelations.

In one scene, the characters rehearsing the play are asked to fall asleep to inspire the writer, who's trying to write a dream sequence for the story. Suddenly, they all start shouting: "You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep!"

Sometimes the only way to really grasp the meaning of our existence is through fantasy, art and interpretation.

steve carell, asteroid city

Ultimately, Asteroid City is about how we find meaning through stories, how fake emotions can become real, how art can inform life as much as life influences art. Wes Anderson finds his truth in symmetrical images, pastel colours and drama-free performances. Whether we appreciate it or not, that is his path to make sense of it all.

In one key scene, Jason Schwartzman’s character (not Augie, but the actor playing Augie) tells the stage director played by Adrien Brody: “I don’t understand the play.” The actor asks, desperation in his eyes: "Am I doing it right?"

Brody’s reply is directed at him as much as to anyone hopelessly trying to make sense of their lives: "It doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story."

Asteroid City arrives in cinemas on June 23.

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