Few filmmakers have the gravitational pull that Wes Anderson has. It seems everybody in Hollywood is clamoring for a chance to be in his orbit. His latest film, Asteroid City, features no shortage of star power. Name five A-list actors at random and odds are you would find at least one of them among the Asteroid City lineup.
Anderson regulars such as Edward Norton, Jeffrey Wright, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and Tilda Swinton are joined by first-timers like Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Margot Robbie, and Bryan Cranston for Anderson’s first-ever foray into the science fiction movie genre. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola wrote a story about stargazing and populated the movie with countless stars – fitting.
Like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs, the title immediately tells you where the film is set. Our story begins in 1955 in the sleepy little desert town called Asteroid City with a population of 87. Anderson gives us a scenic tour of this quaint little town in one clean precise swivel shot. There’s the one-pump gas station, a diner, a 10-room motel, and in typical Anderson eccentricity, an unfinished off-ramp to nowhere. The town’s namesake attraction is the site of an asteroid strike and is adjacent to the grounds of intermittent atomic bomb testing.
War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) is passing through the town with his brainiac son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three daughters. Augie recently lost his wife (Margot Robbie) and is working up the courage to tell his kids about their dead mother. With her ashes concealed in a Tupperware box, they’re traveling to see Augie’s father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) to hopefully begin the grieving process.
Their car breaks down and leaves them stranded in Asteroid City where they meet a whole bunch of colorful characters that include actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a motel owner (Steve Carell), and the scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton).
Asteroid City is also hosting a competition for junior stargazers where they get to witness a cosmic event, but when an alien visitor unexpectedly shows up, the military enforces a lockdown on the town, leaving the inhabitants stuck to ponder their existence.
In case that wasn’t quirky enough, Anderson employs a puzzling meta-framing device for the story of the drama movie. As it turns out, the events we see in Asteroid City aren’t real. It’s merely a televised play being acted out in a theater in New York with the narrator (Bryan Cranston) popping up occasionally to clunkily explain how everything is supposed to tie together.
Where The French Dispatch was Anderson’s way of celebrating journalism, Asteroid City is his way of honoring the medium of theater. However, I did find myself asking, ‘is he paying tribute to the correct medium?’ The film in many ways celebrates the best Steven Spielberg movies, with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but surely that would be a celebration of film and Spielbergian spectacle rather than theater, would it not? So structurally, the film doesn’t feel fully realized.
There are some special standout moments. The first encounter with the extraterrestrial might be one of my favorite scenes he’s ever put to screen. But nothing else in the film matches the same joy and whimsy of this one scene.
It seems redundant to say Asteroid City is a visually pleasing film because that’s the standard we’ve come to expect with any of his work. But truly, this is a feast for the eyes. Robert D. Yeoman’s warm cinematography gives the film a yummy and inviting look.
The color palette is dripping in calming pastels, which extend to the vintage costume designs by Milena Canonero. Adam Stockhausen’s playful set designs make the town of Asteroid City feel like a life-sized dollhouse for the actors to play in. There is also some charming miniature and puppet work with the roadrunners that bounce through the town.
Loyal Anderson fans will be pleased to see so many of his trademarks, but casual moviegoers may struggle with this one. The overabundance of characters all doing the same super-serious deadpan delivery makes it very hard for any performance to stand out. Despite its grand ensemble of top-notch talent, I struggled to recite even three of the character names after I left the cinema. Schwartzman and Johansson are the only two characters that come close to an actual emotional connection. But sadly, even Schwartzman’s journey of grief fails to net some satisfying payoff.
This also features one of the more forgettable scores that Alexandre Desplat has composed for an Anderson picture. The soundtrack song choices overshadow his efforts with excellent uses of Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call and Buddy Holly’s Last Train to San Fernando.
Anderson’s pictures have always been something of an acquired taste. While I appreciate his unique signature style, I struggle to gel with his films’ staccato dialogue and wry over-mannered sensibilities: left at a distance admiring but not swooning over his films – unlike so many of his fans.
There’s no denying Anderson is great at what he does, but he’s reached a point where he’s mastered his own style – to the point where he’s become predictable. While he’s consistently making quality films, we no longer see him experimenting or taking risks. He’s reliable at delivering original (albeit kind of pointless) stories, but nothing about the execution of Asteroid City is daring or surprising. He’s playing it safe.
It’s fun to see Anderson dip his toes in the sci-fi genre. Asteroid City is a picturesque and colorful watch that is bound to leave hardcore Anderson fans pleased. But despite his asteroid-sized cast, there isn’t as much impact as hoped.
For more on great cinema best movies ever made. We’ve also got a handy guide to new movies coming in 2023, with separate articles revealing everything you need to know about the Dune 2 release date, the Oppenheimer release date, and the Barbie release date. Or, take a look at our picks for the best Tom Hanks movies and best Margot Robbie movies.
Asteroid City will delight Wes Anderson fans, but despite a cast filled with stars the director fails to challenge himself and sticks firmly to his well-defined style.