Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

Asteroid City

Directed by Wes Anderson
Produced by Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, and Steven M. Rales
Screenplay by Wes Anderson Story by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
With: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Jake Ryan, Scarlett Johansson, Grace Edwards, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Wright, Hope Davis, Steve Park, Liev Schreiber, Aristou Meehan, Ethan Josh Lee, Sophia Lillis, Tom Hanks, Ella Faris, Gracie Faris, Willan Faris, Deanna Dunagan, Matt Dillon, Iván López, Steve Carell, Tony Revolori, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Paul Kynman, Hong Chau, Sam Marra, Rita Wilson, Randall Poster, Willem Dafoe, and Margot Robbie
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Runtime: 104 min
Release Date: 23 June 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color: Color

When it comes to Wes Anderson, you either love him, hate him, or feel hot and cold about him. One might ask, "Couldn't that be said of any filmmaker?" And one might answer, "Yeah but not quite like this." Because this filmmaker's style is so arch, so specific, so front and center, and so ubiquitous that however you feel about him, you're going to feel that way strongly. I fall into the "hot and cold" camp, which is not the same as lukewarm. It's almost impossible to feel lukewarm about movies that are so deliberately affected. I've seen all but one of Anderson's eleven pictures and I'm sometimes put off by his style and sometimes enchanted by it. His first feature Bottle Rocket (1996) is one of my all-time least favorite films. Coming on the heels of so many '90s Sundance indies by quirky first-time directors and their buddies, that movie about a group of young, dim Texans aspiring to pull off major heists just poked me in ways that I found so annoying it was one of the only movies I seriously considered walking out on. On the other hand, his film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2012) utilizes his signature style to create a fantasy version of Europe between the World Wars that never actually existed but that is instantly recognizable to lovers of old movies. In doing so, he nailed the illusory feeling of nostalgia many of us have for something we never experienced ourselves&mdasha pretty cool trick.

Asteroid City is not quite on par with The Grand Budapest Hotel, but if you were only going to see one Wes Anderson movie and you couldn't see Grand Budapest, this is probably the one. There are a lot of layers to be found in this particular live-action diorama. The film depicts a 1950s-era television program about the production of a play centered on a fictional desert town where a youth astronomy convention gets interrupted by the appearance of an alien, which causes the town's guests and residents to be quarantined by the government. The black and white 1.37:1 framing of the television program doesn't really look like '50s era TV, and the deeply saturated color widescreen images of the sections that take place in the artificial desert town of Asteroid City look even less like a play. But no matter. You'll be either hot or cold on this movie within about six minutes, and if it's working for you, it will only become more and more interesting and enjoyable.

The huge cast includes Anderson regulars like Jason Schwartzman, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Tony Revolori as well as first-timers to the Anderson world: Bryan Cranston, Hope Davis, Steve Carell, Hong Chau, Matt Dillon, Margot Robbie, Tom Hanks, and many others. Hanks is cast in the role I assume was written for Anderson's most frequently cast star (apart from Schwartzman), Bill Murray, who is curiously absent from this picture. But Hanks is probably a better choice to play the gruff father-in-law of the quasi-protagonist played by Schwartzman.

In the main body of the film, Schwartzman plays a photographer named Augie Steenbeck who lost his wife three years ago but hasn't yet figured out how to tell his four children that their mother has died. He's taking his kids to the annual convention of Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets because his brainiac son Woodrow has been selected to be honored at the event. Woodrow is played by newcomer Jake Ryan, who could easily take on the Schwartzman role in a remake of Rushmore, the film that brought both Anderson and Schwartzman to prominence. Once at the tiny desert town of Asteroid City where the convention takes place every summer, they meet the locals, renowned scientists, military brass, the other kids getting honored, and their parents. One of those parents is a famous actress named Midge Campbell, played by Scarlett Johansson with a wonderful blankness that fits perfectly into the Anderson style of deadpan acting while conveying a rich, difficult, mysterious past to which the character herself seems numbed.

Asteroid City doesn't reinvent the Wes Anderson picture. In fact, many of its conceits, techniques, characterizations, narrative beats, and jokes come right out of his earlier films. But they work better in this film. Like Grand Budapest, the film evokes something elusive that probably couldn't be captured via a traditional cinematic narrative. Asteroid City explores the complex emotions that surround death, grief, loss, regret, and the difficulties of communicating and connecting with one's fellow humans, from a place of ultra-clinical distance. It's almost like an alien culture trying to understand how human beings process feelings by studying and then recreating an old play and an old TV program about that play in the only way these beings can—via the live-action dollhouse approach to filmmaking created by Wes Anderson.  


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In one of Wes Anderson's most Wes Andersony films (also one of his most contemplative), we meet the visitors and residents of the titular fictional desert town who gather for a youth astronomy convention that gets interrupted by the appearance of an alien.