Why does Augie Steenbeck, the protagonist of a new play by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), place his hand on a hot griddle and burn it? Jones Hall, the actor playing Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), is bothered by this question. He attempts to find the motivation behind his character’s action. Earp himself doesn’t have an explanation. Nor does the play’s director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). Perhaps because grief manifests itself in varying and unexpected ways.

Whimsy is built into writer-director Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, with the images landing somewhere between Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte with an infusion of Anderson’s quirky playfulness and candy colours.

Anderson equally plays with the frames. This play within a TV show within a film opens in black and white, with show host (Bryan Cranston) introducing Earp’s play. Earp then establishes the mise-en-scene of his drama Asteroid City.

Augie is one of the characters who arrives in the fictional Asteroid City in 1955, accompanied by his children. Augie, a war photographer, is carrying a box with the remains of his recently departed wife. Augie is stoic, as if the horrors he has witnessed on battlefields have numbed him to any real emotion, even towards his mother-less children or his bereft father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks).

The desert town, known for being the impact site of a meteorite some 5,000 years earlier, is welcoming junior stargazers, their parents and young space cadets. Augee’s son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is participating in the Junior Stargazers contest.

The town’s only motel’s manager (Steve Carrell) peddles cigarettes, candy and real estate out of vending machines. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) is in charge of the on-site space research facility, while General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) is presiding over this year’s event.

In his speech, Gibson tells the young Stargazers, “If you wanted to live a nice quiet peaceful life, you picked the wrong time to get born.” The script, by Anderson and Roman Coppola, is peppered with such loaded one-liners.

Asteroid City (2023).

Lonely movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) is accompanying her teenage daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards). A perky teacher is shepherding a group of students. The stern JJ Kellogg (Liev Schreiber) is increasingly frustrated by his attention-demanding Stargazer son. There’s a kindly cowboy named Montana (Rupert Friend) and a starstruck school girl with her equally aware mother. Every one of them is rattled by an alien appearance.

Anderson’s screenplay goes back and forth between the TV studio and the stage set as a constant reminder of the script’s artifice. The fictional and flawed characters they portray in the play are burdened, unsure of their place or their future. The possibility of life elsewhere is hugely destabilising for all age groups.

As always in an Anderson film, a delight is the catalogue of cameos, which includes Matt Dillon, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe, whose acting class throws up the film’s mantra: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

Anderson uses diptychs in the colour portions and symmetrical visuals created with studio equipment and backdrops in the monotone bits. He shoots his actors up close, solitary, without cluttered frames and asides. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s camera moves staccato or in a smooth motion capturing what needs to be caught, with economy.

The film’s message is painted over with images and colours that are imaginative and rich enough to be engaging. The movie is so meticulously acoustic (the music is by Alexandre Desplat) that it feels like a jaunty ride on a musical carousel.

There is much attention to detail in every frame, with Augie’s name most likely a conscious homage to the German flatbed editing equipment. Similarly, each name in a children’s memory game is carefully curated (keep an ear out for Indian inventor Jagadish Chandra Bose).