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‘Asteroid City’ review: Wes Anderson goes to the moon and back

By June 28, 2023No Comments5 min read
(L to R) Grace Edwards as "Dinah", Scarlett Johansson as "Midge Campbell" and Damien Bonnaro as "Bodyguard/Driver" in writer/director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

With a major cast and deeply felt story, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City is easily one of his most experimental achievements yet.

Of late, there’s been an odd and frankly incorrect belief that Wes Anderson has fallen into formula. The auteur — best known for his acute framing, sharply-dressed but monotone-speaking characters, and whimsical set-dressing — has built a reputation for having an easily recognizable and (wrongly assumed) easily mirror-able style. The result has been a series of recent AI-created pastiches and tongue-in-cheek parodies intended to replicate the hallmarks of his distinctive work. So, what’s perhaps most refreshing and ultimately most appealing about Anderson’s latest film, Asteroid City, is the way in which the well-established filmmaker wrestles with his artistic identity while also defying expectations in the process. If young audience members thought they had the guy quirkly pegged, they’re in for quite a stylishly-symmetrical surprise. 

Introduced by Bryan Cranston’s Rod Sterling-esque host, Asteroid City is revealed to be a twofold setting: it is, at once, a fictional ‘50s desert small-town (pop. 87) and the title of a TV playhouse drama. A nesting doll of storytelling, Anderson allows the quaint liberties of his fabricated homespun tale to play up his well-seen eccentricities. Shot in crisp, bubblegum 35mm, the fictional town in the play is jam-packed with Anderson’s signature density of frame.

Every little moment from a camera pan to a stilted shot bursts at the seams with impeccable design, delightful blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags, and simply stunning, ultra-precise blocking. As we follow an assortment of odd fellows, all gathered in town for an annual astronomy event in celebration of their humblepie town’s claim to fame (a miniature meteorite that plopped itself onto its desert plains in 3007 B.C.), we learn that this sunny summer retreat will soon become something far more substantial. 

(L to R) Steve Carell as "Motel Manager", Aristou Meehan as "Clifford" and Liev Schreiber as "J.J. Kellogg" in writer/director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

“Some of our information about outer space may no longer be completely accurate.”

Primarily following Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a crestfallen war photographer and widower who must figure out, particularly with his father-in-law’s (Tom Hanks) insistence, how to present the news of his wife’s passing to his teenage son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), along with his three young daughters, Asteroid City initially follows the traditional hallmarks of Anderson’s most signature work.

Grief and emotional detachment are often keenly-observed in his films, with his restrained style giving picturesque expressionism to the characters’ often emotionally distant or uncertain place in life. The frames are in sync, but the protagionsts will often lash out in brash or radical ways, providing a whiplash sensation that resonates with viewers in addition to the gaffes.

But similar to Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and most recently The French Dispatch, Asteroid City has a story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure in order to comment on the very nature of storytelling. Or, rather, the need to express oneself, particularly when faced with loss, insecurity, isolation, and misery. A lot has been said about how Anderson tells his stories, but not as much has been said about why Anderson tells the stories he tells. A filmmaker who prides himself in following a variety of despondent and downstricken characters in the midst of personal revelation or even re-evaluation, Anderson’s filmography sings in the ways his imitators often do not. Because he isn’t afraid to use his style to reflect the identity of his gloomy characters.

It’s not simply style for style’s sake.

(L to R) Jake Ryan as "Woodrow", Grace Edwards as "Dinah", Ethan Josh Lee as "Ricky", Aristou Meehan as "Clifford", and Sophia Lillis as "Shelly" in writer/director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Anderson’s distinct style is born from a painstaking process that reveals itself gradually and tenderly, allowing the viewer to be stricken with unsuspecting emotional wallops just when they least expect it — typically much like the protagonists themselves. And with Asteroid City, Anderson appears to be commenting on the very nature of his own films and himself as a filmmaker and exploring what makes him tick.

Particularly as events in Asteroid City, the play within the story within the movie, see the sunnyside ensemble trapped in quarantine in their desert small town, and the actors and writers inside the story within the film find themselves quarantined into the material not unlike Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Anderson not only makes a COVID movie that will certainly outlive the opportunistic likes of HBO Max’s awful Locked Down, to name one example, but one that makes thematic use of what it means to be trapped within the confines of a town that is simultaneously homey and alien, as well as wrestling with the confines of one’s self-creation and built-up reputation.

Perception can be a prison deeper and sadder than simply being homebound. At least in the small town of Asteroid City, where colors sizzle and locales pop, there’s a chance that you have a small summertime fling. Or, perhaps, you make peace with a deep loss that has long haunted you. 

Bryan Cranston stars as "Host" in writer/director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

The bottom line.

Asteroid City has a lot of what you might expect from Anderson, but it’s also pricklier, weirder, and more self-reflective than what casual viewers might assume it to be. It turns out Anderson is quite madly aware of the notoriety of his work that precedes him, and he’ll continue to outclass and outshine his imitators by making brazenly daring and heartfelt works that showcase his impressive bandwidth of framing and styling. But that also shine a spotlight on the deep, aching humanity that prevents his films from simply being pretty, empty dollhouses.

The film also teases what might intriguingly be a new path for the filmmaker. One that harkens to his familiar hallmarks but is also unafraid to push the creator to more disarming places. Unlike some of his other movies, the smile-garnering pleasures of Asteroid City are a ruse of multitudes. The pain comes quickly and lingers longer; the bittersweet feelings that eventually follow make it all the more worthwhile. Asteroid City is a film, a place, a play, and, subsequently, a state of mind. It’s also something that AI, TikTok, and algorithms won’t duplicate, since they don’t have the humanity. 

Asteroid City is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of Focus Features. Read more articles by Will Ashton here.

  • ASTEROID CITY - 8/10
Will Ashton

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