(Take me down to the Asteroid City
Where the alien’s green and the buttes are pretty) 😉
Living in a large city affords one some strange opportunities for entertainment; consider the Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland and Star Wars-themed bars here in Los Angeles, for example. Touring experiences like Netflix’ “Stranger Things” pop-up make their way here, fully immersive shows and environments based on the most recent of popular properties.
You can likely see why I never really expected one connected to Wes Anderson. Sure, the quirky director has his own signature, 2-dimensional style, which sounds fun but would make translation to something one can experience off-screen seem challenging. Yet Los Angeles and New York city have been given the opportunity to visit Anderson’s latest film setting, the fictional American desert town of Asteroid City, stepping into 1955 through both a facsimile of the town and viewing the film itself.
Headquartered at the Landmark Theatres Sunset in Hollywood, all five screens and every inch of the theater has been given over to a full immersive experience for the first two weeks of Asteroid City‘s run. Colleen and I bought evening tickets for what turned out to be the “soft opening” event, benefitting movie-theater charity stalwart Will Rogers Fund, which provides financial aid and supportive counseling to individuals who work in theatrical exhibition and distribution suffering illness, accident or injury. Brownie points earned.
LA traffic in the evening is always a challenge, and things were further complicated by street closures with the Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny premiere happening about a mile away at the Dolby Theater. We snaked slowly through the streets to a strip-mall that the GPS assured us was the right place, despite no signage indicating a theater actually existed at the location. With blind faith in technology, and after some careful Beggar’s-Canyon-style driving down four levels in the narrow subterranean parking lot, we rode the elevator to the main level of the center.
Figuring out we needed to ascend one more level, we finally found what appeared to be the theater. The immersion started at the entrance, with an Asteroid City postcard-style billboard set amid sand, gravel and cacti. Images of butte-filled plains covered the glass, and the film’s logo sat high above the entry doors, showcasing Scarlett Johansson, perhaps its biggest star.
We found a check-in table and confirmed our tickets at will call. Many people in work-casual attire congregated by the doors, not quite what we expected for such a distinctive event; Colleen and I had dressed for the 1955 time period, seemingly the only ones to do it. We entered the theater, collected themed t-shirts and postcards, and moved into the lobby; resisting the urge to check everything out, we first staked out our favorite seats for the screening.
Back in the lobby, things were tight, but they made good use of space. Recreations of motel cabins, the Asteroid Crater Awards presentation space, a rotary-dialed phone booth and more were fun photo opportunities; seven in all, on two levels of the lobby. Costumes from the film were on display, and even the snack bar had vintage dressing related to the movie’s diner. Of course, not having seen the film yet, we didn’t have proper reference for the sets, but could appreciate how well they seemed to capture the Wes Anderson vibe. While we could have easily been lost in all the details, we instead grabbed popcorn and drinks and settled into our seats for the screening with minutes to spare.
The official summary of the film concerns “the itinerary of a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention” that is “spectacularly disrupted by world-changing events.” And honestly, that’s a mere scratch on the surface. The characters are the usual microcosm of 1950s personages, from mechanics and cowboy musicians to schoolteachers and movie stars, but those are the “fictional” characters, for each also has a “real world” counterpart and persona, which the film flips back and forth between.
And that’s the thing no trailer prepares you for; the film involves a meta-narrative of the production of a play, and its backstage story. It starts in black and white with a behind the scenes intro in a classic 4:3 screen ratio and later it will go to technicolor and full screen as we view the play as produced. It sounds confusing, but it isn’t — not regarding which narrative in you’re in, at least. But there are so many characters involved (21 big-name actors are listed on the poster alone, even more in the background) that it does seem to get muddled a bit; Asteroid City officially has a population of 87, and it sometimes seems that you’re actively trying to keep track of them all in your head. And then the alien shows up.
The only real omission is Bill Murray, a staple of Anderson’s stable, who had to decline participation due to contracting COVID.
And the huge cast, hearkening back to epic ensemble movies like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” is just pitch-perfect, many playing against type. I almost want a version of the technicolor-saturated “play” alone, with no cutaways to the real-world meta-story, something with which I imagine the internet will accommodate me when the film is released on home media.
I liked the film a lot — but putting my finger on why that is is hard. The backstage plot had its interesting moments, but the “play” itself was of primary interest to me. Nearly all involved in the production, from Wes Anderson on down, say that the film needs to be viewed twice. They aren’t wrong, as there’s much I’m still confused by — and I’m not sure it had a definite, conclusive ending. But as an Anderson fan, I’m happy to get it. Of all Wes Anderson’s films, it is easily the most “Wes Anderson-y” to date, and shines when it is at its most fantastical.
We were expecting a larger turnout at the screening; we really did seem to be perhaps two of five guests not connected to the production, and the only ones noticeably dressed in the spirit of the film. But it was a stellar experience, one I hope that hard-core “Fandersons” can take advantage of. Having an additional person there to help us participate in the photo ops would have been ideal — in context of the film, some of the vignettes are better with two people involved, and there were no staff or willing guests to snap our photo.
The Asteroid City Popup can be experienced in Los Angeles at the Landmark Theatres Sunset. Standard Experience or Premium Experience tickets are available; Standard ($25.00) includes admission to the movie and access to the Pop-Up photo ops, while the Premium ticket ($50.00) includes admission to the movie, an exclusive t-shirt only available at the Pop-Up, and popcorn. More information and tickets available at https://www.focusfeatures.com/article/asteroid-city_pop-up-experience.
In New York, visit https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/asteroid-city for info on their experience.
Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2023, where it was in competition for the Palme d’Or. It has a limited US theatrical release through Focus Features beginning on June 16, 2023, before expanding to a wide release on June 23, 2023. It stars Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Steve Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, and Jeff Goldblum.
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