What AI (and Everyone Else) Misunderstands About Wes Anderson

Movies Features Wes Anderson
What AI (and Everyone Else) Misunderstands About Wes Anderson

Some filmmakers inspire intense adoration. Others elicit an almost primal revulsion, frequently for the same reasons they’re beloved by their fans. Something about Wes Anderson brings out both qualities, often in the same people. For every person who finds solace in his melancholy worlds of impeccable aesthetic flair, there’s someone who is put off by his preciousness. Still, he is that most rare of creatures in mainstream American cinema: A director able to get sizable budgets and star-studded casts for wide release, adult-oriented films that are undeniably the vision of one person. His latest release, Asteroid City, sees him dip a toe into science fiction, set at a junior stargazing convention where the magic of outer space begins to loom more forebodingly than ever. It has inspired the usual discourse around Anderson, one of Film Twitter’s most well-worn topics. 

But outside of that bubble, Anderson is having a curious moment as an online phenomenon. Not only have Wes Anderson challenges taken over TikTok, with users trying to replicate his style in their own lives, but numerous AI experiments have tried to ape his work for speculative tech demonstrations. An entirely artificially generated trailer for a Wes Anderson Star Wars quickly went viral, as did one of an Andersonian Lord of the Rings. There’s an Avatar one, and Harry Potter too. Bill Murray is “in” all of them. 

In terms of the shallowest possible reading of Anderson’s work, he makes solid sense as an AI prompt. He is one of the most visually distinctive filmmakers working today, one of such a highly specific style that it can be recognized from 50 paces: Perfect symmetry, a varied color palette with a predilection towards pastels, deadpan faces, tableau-style compositions, and design with one foot firmly in kitsch. It’s so distinctive that the concept of “Accidental Wes Anderson” exists to define an entire branch of architecture. We see something so familiar, something so deeply ingrained in our cultural landscape, that we begin to kid ourselves into thinking it must be easy to do. I can make things symmetrical too, right? But you can’t. And you shouldn’t bother because, as every single AI showcase has proven, it will suck and entirely miss the point. 

We know that AI, which is a fancy term for “plagiarism machine” when used in this context, has little understanding of art or the effort needed to create it. Why would it, when all it does is regurgitate other people’s work? The novelty of AI to weakly recreate famous filmmakers’ ideas has littered social media over the past few months. Almost all of them are terrible, totally bereft of any true sense of the director’s intentions, and many of them look absolutely nothing like the real films that inspired them. Consider one person’s attempt to make a Star Wars-esque ‘70s sci-fi directed by David Cronenberg, which was not only ugly and derivative, but antithetical to Cronenberg’s actual work. Clearly, AI found some underpaid critic’s description of the director as a body horror expert and decided that hot dog skeletons were up his alley. When you decide to reduce decades of work and achingly detailed artistic labor to a few weird images that vaguely imply a director’s vision, it’s no surprise that the end results are so poor. 

Anderson wannabes and AI copycats are notorious for this. Sure, it sometimes looks cool to “create” a Star Wars film by the guy who made The Royal Tenenbaums (and it’s almost always Star Wars with these prompts), but the images themselves are as surface level as the technology’s philosophies. They dismiss storytellers like Anderson as novelties, one-trick ponies who lack substance to go with the style. A refusal to fully engage with art is encouraged, and for Anderson, it only continues to devalue his decades’ long evolution into a great artist. 

Anderson endures for many reasons, and yes, part of that is the visual flair with which he tells every story. Nobody does it like him, because he’s a cine-literate storyteller who knows his references better than any computer program. Contrary to his image as a control freak, Matt Zoller Seitz, author of The Wes Anderson Collection, notes that he’s “very open to accidents and chance,” and willing to have extenuating circumstances shape his work. He is as influenced by his travels as he is by the works of Fellini, Benjamin Britten and Roald Dahl. The richness of his visual vocabulary comes from endless sources, well-matched to their subject rather than shoehorned in at his demand. Consider the postcard perfection of The Grand Budapest Hotel, designed to evoke the “world of yesterday” as detailed by Stefan Zweig, whose work inspired the film. It is a European story shot by an American inspired by the Hollywood icons who fled the continent on the eve of war, like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. This intentionality matters.

Reducing Anderson to a dollhouse maker is easy because too many assume there’s nothing to his movies but production design—Instagram-ready décor. AI also fails to capture Anderson’s warmth, his humor, his often startling emotional depth. The Grand Budapest Hotel, which might be his magnum opus, is truly hilarious, with Ralph Fiennes giving a career-best performance as a debonair gigolo concierge who falls into a series of old Hollywood-style shenanigans. Yet the weight of history is never overlooked, as the ever-looming realities of war hang forever overhead. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson gets some of his biggest laughs while mining the painful depths of a splintered family bound together by myriad traumas. The re-imagining of Moby-Dick through the lens of a droll Jacques Cousteau riff in The Life Aquatic has a devastating emotional payoff even as it routinely mocks the trite narrative beats of a Hollywood family drama. Even as he pushes further into the realms of visual artifice, there’s a strong beating heart in Anderson’s chest. 

The ultimate goals of AI are anti-human, therefore making them intrinsically anti-art. It’s the smarmy agenda of turning millennia of creation into an algorithm that can be replicated ad nauseam without the need to compensate or credit anyone for it. It’s the modern equivalent of that one jerk who looks at a Rothko or Pollock painting and sneers, “My kid could paint that.” No, your toddler can’t paint that, and your laptop can’t make a Wes Anderson film. At least the TikTok trends require some forethought and an appreciation for the thing they’re copying. Art is about context, intent, specificity. How could one not be dazzled by the in-camera freeze frame of The French Dispatch, complete with props hanging by wires, cotton wool fire extinguisher clouds, and actors in contortions? The time, the planning, the call-backs to decades of filmmaking craft… having a computer crank out a facsimile of it in a few minutes inspires little more than an apathetic shrug.

We love film because we love to see artists do their jobs. No amount of cigar-chomping anti-union executives or sneering tech bros who respond to every critic’s ideas with “learn to code” can change that. Audiences respect Wes Anderson because every ounce of labor is on the screen, so stunningly realized and with his weighty respect for the craft on display for all to see. It’s real magic, both the result of adoring planning and the beautiful accidents that make art so special. It’s not a code you enter for instant satisfaction, and it’s certainly not a formula to be replicated into oblivion. Wes Anderson does it because he means it, and that’s worth a thousand AI prompts.

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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