Movie Review: Asteroid City works like a charm, each detail feeling firmly in place despite the layers and layers of artifice Wes Anderson plants around every corner. His detractors may despise it, but if you’ve ever been even a smidge interested in his work up to this point, it’s certainly worth seeing – because you won’t believe its contents otherwise.
Asteroid City is the newest movie from Wes Anderson, his 11th movie in total and his latest to receive rapturous applause from critics and stars in attendance at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Wes Anderson’s movies always seem to be in conversation with one another so I’m always interested in seeing the response for his films after their premiere. He’s such an admired filmmaker that the reception is never bad, but there seemed to be a more natural and authentic feeling of excitement from those leaving the screenings at Cannes than there has been with his last couple releases.
And that perked my ears up because it’s been a few features since I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed one of Wes Anderson’s movies. I’ve admired the craft and technique for each, but recently he seems more interested in the artifice that goes into the making of his movies – the sets and costumes feeling like their own characters, themselves – but the narratives have felt absent of the same emotion that brought me to his movies in the past.
This is to say that as of lately, Wes Anderson has concurrently been at his most visually inventive and unique, while also being at his least involving. Conscious or not, he hasn’t hit the same emotional vitality of The Grand Budapest Hotel since that movie’s release. Some may note that there are only two entries into his filmography between that movie and Asteroid City, but these come nearly a decade apart. Isle of Dogs and The French Dispatch felt like middling (or worse) movies for him – ones where he dedicated himself so much to style that he found there wasn’t much new to say in a coherent and understandable fashion.
Which makes it even stranger that Asteroid City not only surges far past his previous two movies, but past ones much earlier in his oeuvre. Asteroid City is simply fantastic, and not just because it’s so refreshing to see a filmmaker return to the same impulses that I wish were present in his previous two efforts, but also because of the visual feast on hand and the risks he takes along the way, too.
It’s occasionally hard to interpret the plot Asteroid City; the movie acts as a sort of Russian nesting doll. There is the vibrant, burnt orange and bright blue town of Asteroid City that doubles as the movie’s title as well as the setting and title for the play inside of this movie, and then there is a black-and-white section of the film that cuts intermittently to explain the prospects around the play – it’ll all make sense in due time.
Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) is traveling with his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three daughters to the fictional desert town of Asteroid City circa 1955. The city plays host to the annual Junior Stargazers/Space Cadet convention held to bring students and parents together from across the country for a multi-day, scientific competition. Fellow attendees include famous yet weary actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her bright daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), five-star General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), astronomer Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), a busload of schoolchildren watched over by June Douglas (Maya Hawke), a cowboy band led by singer Montana (Rupert Friend), and many more. They are all accommodated by a local motel and its head manager (Steve Carell).
The festivities proceed like ordinary until a world-changing event takes place. As General Grif Gibson gives the opening remarks for competition, a UFO appears out of the sky and makes contact with the lifeforms on Earth. The convention proceeds to shut down until further notice, and Asteroid City goes into lockdown for “decontamination” – Where Wes Anderson digs satirically into the underbelly of United States’ coverups and unrevealed intelligence.
The following movie plays much like a Wes Anderson’s greatest hits montage; the cast is stacked and the world is so lively and entertaining. It’s hard to pinpoint a main storyline for Asteroid City, but given that Wes continually works to dissect broken families and crumbling father figures, and the fact that Jason Schwartzman plays that particular father figure this time around, Augie’s relationship with his son feels like the emotional and narrative crux of the whole film.
His storyline isn’t developed as deeply as in past Wes Anderson movies, but that’s partially by design because the movie begins to unfurl into a second narrative arch documenting the inspiration for the play of Asteroid City, which is ostensibly everything mentioned in the above summary. The movie works in two-fold – showing the play in real time, while occasionally breaking to the actors and crew playing the parts or writing the story.
This chunk centers mostly around playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and actor Jones Hall (again, Jason Schwartzman) as they conceive of Augie as a character and Asteroid City as a play. Throughout, the movie reveals how each performer was selected to play their parts, including Mercedes Ford (Scarlett Johansson) as Midge. This is perhaps when the movie gets both the most involving and the most confusing – seeing the weight of constantly playing these characters night after night is palpable as eventually Jones and Mercedes are openly going through the motions unsure of their character’s aspirations or motivations, and that’s felt watching the colorized version of the play inside of the movie.
At times, I felt that artifice within Wes’ latest movie pushing and pulling me either towards or away from it. I’m going to have to see it again at some point, because Asteroid City moves at breakneck speed to establish this world inside of another world, while not always landing that idea. The movie acts like a real litmus test, I can definitely understand a viewer thinking it gets too far into the weeds or that it doesn’t add up to much in the long run. You have to work to gleam your own thematic purposes from it, because Asteroid City may be one of Wes Anderson’s least outwardly pointing film yet – he’s letting you derive meaning from it rather than pushing you in a certain direction.
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Each performance adds new layers to the movie, and it’s hard to pick out just a few to mention in this review. Jason Schwartzman gets his first chance to feel like the true lead in a Wes Anderson picture since Rushmore and it feels like an emotionally resonating reunion for the two, like he’s playing the dad that Max Fischer would grow up to be like 30 years later.
Scarlett Johansson and Tom Hanks play in their first Wes Anderson movie. The former buys in completely and has me surprised she wasn’t in one of these before. Hanks doesn’t have as much screen time as I expected, but he has the comedic timing and self-wit to hang effortlessly with each of these overly characterized personas.
And yet for some reason, the performer I’m dying to see get his own Wes Anderson lead in the future the most is Steve Carell, who nails every line of dialogue and may have the highest approval rating for me when you factor in his screen time (he’s not in it much, I need a director’s cut with just more of his character).
The cinematography feels relatively similar in style to Wes Anderson’s common approach, although the color palettes and set design feels like such a new step for him, as well as moviemaking in general. I’ve always thought of many of Wes’ movies to operate like plays, but this was the first time I thought he truly blended them together in a seamless marriage. I had a hard time telling what was real and what was complete artifice.
Combine that with the needle drops and score and it’s a Wes Anderson movie that fans of his will fall head-over-heels for. It’s the complete package, and a true return to form for one of cinema’s great visionaries. Although the twee stylistic takes of Star Wars, Succession, and others done by A.I. were fun and cutesy in the moment, there’s nothing like the real thing. An incredible sci-fi, western achievement that warrants repeat viewing – not to just understand every narrative piece of it, but also fully embrace and comprehend the nuances that surround it.
Where to watch Asteroid City: Peacock Premium, VOD
Asteroid City Movie Cast and Credits
Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck
Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell
Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak
Jake Ryan as Woodrow Steenbeck
Jeffrey Wright as General Grif Gibson
Tilda Swinton as Dr. Hickenlooper
Grace Edwards as Dinah
Bryan Cranston as The Host/Narrator
Edward Norton as Conrad Earp
Adrien Brody as Schubert Green
Liev Schreiber as J.J. Kellogg
Rupert Friend as Montana
Maya Hawke as June Douglas
Steve Carell as Motel Manager
Margot Robbie as The Actress/Wife
Director: Wes Anderson
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Editor: Barney Pilling
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Asteroid City movie on Letterboxd
Asteroid City movie on IMDb