Running Time: 105 mins
UK Distributor: Universal Pictures
WHO’S IN ASTEROID CITY?
Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum, Sophia Lillis, Fisher Stevens, Ethan Josh Lee, Grace Edwards, Aristou Meehan, Rita Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Bob Balaban
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Wes Anderson (director, writer, producer), Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales (producers), Alexandre Desplat (composer), Robert D. Yeoman (cinematographer), Barney Pilling (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A town in the middle of the desert is caught off guard by world-changing events…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ASTEROID CITY?
It seems that with every new Wes Anderson movie that comes out, I and countless other critics tend to label it as “the most Wes Anderson movie yet”. I remember saying exactly that with his previous film The French Dispatch, I’m sure I’ll say it about the next one he makes, and you can bet everything you own that I am going to say that Asteroid City is the most Wes Anderson movie yet as well.
The thing is, the auteur’s deadpan artistic vision is so articulate and instantly recognisable that it has become something of its own genre, to where there is currently a TikTok trend of recreating his style, as well as AI-generated content imagining stuff like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings coming from Anderson’s mind. That automatically makes Asteroid City a somewhat less unique film among his back catalogue, at least on the surface, for it follows many of the expected tropes one associates with Wes Anderson – from the symmetrical staging of actors and props to its Russian doll narrative structure – almost down to a tee. However, there does seem to be a slightly deeper intention at its heart, and while it may take you a bit of time to figure it out, you might just find something unique about it after all.
Anderson first introduces a black-and-white framing device set in a television studio, where Bryan Cranston in full Rod Sterling mode tells the audience of playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and his efforts to come up with and cast a play entitled Asteroid City. Much of the film shows up a filmed version of said play, shot in widescreen technicolour and split into several acts and scenes; it is set in 1955, within the titular desert town – known for being the site of a large asteroid crater millennia prior – that is currently playing host to a youth astronomy convention. Recently bereaved war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) arrives in town to support his teenage son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) who is taking part in the convention, as is Dinah (Grace Edwards), the daughter of famous but disillusioned actor Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Soon, they and several other townsfolk and out-of-towners – including Tom Hanks as Augie’s grumpy father-in-law, and Steve Carell as a motel manager who offers strips of desert land in one of his many vending machines – comes across an unexpected visitor from above the stars, forcing the town into quarantine until further notice.
As you might expect, most if not all of it is delivered with Anderson’s typically droll nature, on top of his iconic style of filmmaking. Characters deliver their long-winded lines in as dry a manner as the desert in which they are staying, and with little discernible emotion in their performances outside of the very rare outward expression. Scenes are shot with just about everything and everyone framed along the central horizontal lining, with the camera often tracking them from a held-in-position rig that follows them along from side to side, or moves around in a 360-degree angle while it stays firmly in place. Stylistically, it is as typical a Wes Anderson movie as you can imagine, to where one could easily see this as being more of a parody of the filmmaker rather than the genuine article, like that SNL sketch some years back where they reimagined a slasher movie from his auteur perspective (I’ve attached it below for your general amusement).
Pretty funny (and alarmingly accurate), right? Okay, back to Asteroid City.
At first, it can be difficult to wrap your head around this film, even if you’re already a Wes Anderson fan. There is a strange emotional disconnect between the viewer and the narrative(s), as Anderson seems to apply his style two-fold in lieu of making this story or its characters resonate in a truly meaningful way (it says something when the most expressive and personality-driven of the lot is the mute stop-motion alien that appears for a few film-stealing seconds). Most of the time, all of these high-profile actors among this rather packed A-list ensemble – aside from the ones already mentioned, there’s Margot Robbie, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Dillon, Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke, and Anderson regulars like Willem Dafoe and Tilda Swinton (no Bill Murray this time, though, for he had to pull out after catching COVID-19) – just feel like mouthpieces for Anderson to express some heavily descriptive dialogue that somehow makes it more difficult to follow along with the plot and what exactly the whole point of it is supposed to be.
But then, in a rug-pulling moment, the lack of point turns out to be precisely the point, because it all seems to tie into a form of self-expression that, more so than a lot of Anderson’s other movies, allows the viewer to try and understand his perspective. Actors performing within the televised play will sometimes break character to openly question why certain things don’t make sense, or why some people say or do things that aren’t natural, and there is even a bit of confusion when Cranston’s narrator accidentally stumbles into the main narrative. The play’s director, an Anderson surrogate played by Adrien Brody, offers few satisfying answers except to encourage the chaos because it’s just part of his method, just as it is for the actors to participate in bizarre ritualistic chants of “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep,” in order to rationalise the strangeness of the play. Here, it seems like Anderson is opening up his artistic process to the viewer, in ways that at first seem odd when viewed in practise, but ultimately resonate as a creator sharing insight on how exactly they achieve their signature style. In that sense, it is fascinating as an exercise of meta commentary that requires an unexpected breakdown of a widely recognised piece of auteurism, followed by an analysis that’s still very much in his own voice.
Like I said, Asteroid City is absolutely the most Wes Anderson movie yet (until the next one, anyway), but it is also him at his most self-reflective and self-analytical, which despite not feeling immediately apparent does at the very least make it another peculiar addition to a collection that’s never been anything less than peculiar.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Asteroid City sees Wes Anderson deliver two-fold on his signature style of meticulous filmmaking, which definitely won’t win over any non-converts, but a surprisingly self-analytical turn later on gives it a more reflective edge.