The Melancholic Meanderings of Asteroid City

What Wes Anderson’s films lack in plot they supersede in creativity.

Wes Anderson’s latest film Asteroid City is melancholic and meaningful. Set in the fictional desert town of Asteroid City circa 1955, the movie is a meditation on the interplay of religion and science, art and life, and even reveals an alien as metaphor for the viewer to decipher (played by Jeff Goldblum no less). Asteroid City also pays homage to Episcopalians, includes a hoedown of the Lord’s prayer addressed to aliens, and, in very Wes Anderson meta-fashion, unfolds a play within a play within a movie with a lost narrator.

Everyone in the film seems to be lost in time. There’s a melancholic mood and quixotic quality to the movie. Is it a comedy? Is there a plot? Is it a play? Is it all a dream? The film threads a story about a grieving and meandering father who has lost his wife and struggles to tell his children that their mom is dead. Compared to other Wes Anderson films, Asteroid City is quieter, the shots longer, the themes of death and the supernatural grander. Throughout this Russian doll illusion, the themes of grief and grace, death and resurrection are intoned in the mantra of the film: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

Many don’t get Wes Anderson, but for those who do, what his films lack in plot they supersede in creativity. While detractors dismiss his films as boring, fans welcome every fastidious frame as fanciful and latent with meaning. In Asteroid City, there’s nothing more whimsied than a nostalgic desert town from the mid last century with a martini vending machine. For Wes Anderson, the desert is where the grieving find solace, the thirsty get a drink, and the lost discover the path to wholeness.

Asteroid City reminds me of a famous engraving by the German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer: Melencolia I. Like a Wes Anderson shot, Dürer’s engraving is precise and poignant. In Melencolia I we see the complex interrelation of sadness, creativity, and theology. Perhaps, as some speculate, the figure in Melencolia I represents Dürer himself. Artists like Dürer and Wes Anderson are muses for melancholy that inspire creativity and consolation.

Meanings of the word melancholy range in the original Greek and Latin from sadness and delusions to creativity and imagination and match the moxie of Asteroid City. Our culture is awash in busyness and distraction. Wes Anderson invites us to meander in the desert; to be lost in meditation.

The book of Exodus, the foundational book of the Bible, is set in the desert. The desert is where the people of God become lost and find their way. The desert is where theology happens. As the book of Numbers adds, the melancholic meanderings of the desert refine God’s people in the Scriptural and existential pattern of death and resurrection. Asteroid City points to the desert as waystation for refreshment and intimates that just as you can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep, you can’t find your way without first being lost.


Rev. Dr. Joshua Hollmann is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia University, St. Paul, and a Wes Anderson aficionado who is currently writing Theology and Wes Anderson for Lexington Books and Fortress Academic.

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One response to “The Melancholic Meanderings of Asteroid City”

  1. Stuart F. says:

    There’s definitely theological threads to be pulled in this film. Like an actor in a play, we perform the narratives of our own lives, not always understanding our motivations or the larger narrative, and to escape the artifice we have to leave the “self” behind (to wake up, you must first fall asleep).

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