Asteroid City review: Wes Anderson goes lo-fi sci-fi with an all-star cast

Wes Anderson looks to the stars in every way with Asteroid City, his new sci-fi western, packed with notable characters and an alien. But can the filmmaker take a giant step out of (e)his cinematic world of him?

You’ve been here before. Anyone more than slightly familiar with Wes Anderson’s aesthetics and interests will recognize much of Asteroid City, even if they’ve never been to the remote 1950s American desert town of Asteroid City, population 87 and the site of a 3000-year-old meteor landing, where his new movie is set.

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You’ll recognize the regular cast of actors (Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and company) for another series of funny deadpan duets; the intricate, color-coded art direction, like a pretty box of chocolates; the trademark, mathematically precise camera movements; and tales of bruised parent-child relationships and the awkward flutters of young love. So far, Wes.

Wes Anderson is thinking outside the box of chocolates

Few directors divide audiences as much as Anderson has of late. Some have doubled down on her love for singular visions of her, especially in an era of often interchangeable superhero and fantasy blockbusters. Others, even past admirers, have had a sense of diminishing returns from the auteur’s ongoing film world tour: everywhere from modern India (The Darjeeling Limited) to mid-20th century central Europe (The Grand Budapest Hotel ), stop-motion Japan (Isle of Dogs) to fictional France (The French Dispatch) is reduced to another district of Wes’s world. It’s cute and classy, ​​but ultimately a chain of designer boutique hotels can be a chain that weighs you down artistically. Or at least start a TikTok replica craze.

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So it’s encouraging to see Asteroid City searching for life beyond planet Earth. It’s as if Anderson is trying to get out, or at least a little extraterrestrial perspective of his cabal of characters, all hitherto trapped within his quirks and habits. For when a certain celestial event occurs, in the middle of a Junior Stargazers/Space Cadet convention, and the US military initiates a real lockdown while they investigate, the various inhabitants and visitors of Asteroid City begin to consider their lives. The director has regularly given his characters existential crises, but here he has them literally question their place and purpose in the universe.

The brightest stars in the galaxy.

And what group of characters it is. Anderson has always attracted big names to appear in his films, but this is his biggest and most star-studded ensemble yet. Alongside stalwarts like those listed above and other regulars (Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright), previous voice-only Anderson actors like Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson appear in person for the first time. As does Steve Carell, Hong Chau, Matt Dillon, Margot Robbie, Tom Hanks, and a great cameo costumed as an Anderson regular in a role that tips his hat to that actor’s previous sci-fi movies.

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Focus functions

It’s just too big a cast, really, and inevitably, certain people—including Dillon’s mechanic, Carell’s obliging hotel manager, Maya Hawke’s nervous schoolteacher, and a blinking, missing-her Robbie—have the least to do. do. Johansson and Hanks are doing better. Both orbit around the main character, Schwartzman’s Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer and recent widower with four children, one of whom Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is a bona fide scientific genius.

Hanks is Augie’s gruff father-in-law, Stanley, and he reluctantly steps in to babysit his grandchildren. Johansson plays famed actress Midge Campbell, whose own daughter (Grace Edwards) is another Junior Stargazer, and for a while, it seemed that both parent-teenage pairs of Steenbeck and Campbell might be embarking on tentative romances. However, the course of true love rarely runs smoothly in Wes’s world.

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Reframing the framing devices

Or should we say, Wes’ Worlds? Today, Anderson is rarely content to tell a straightforward story, and indeed, similar to the nested narratives of Greater Budapest, there are at least three layers to peel away here. The film opens with a black-and-white television broadcast introduced by Cranston’s commanding narrator. His show depicts the making of a hit play called “Asteroid City,” detailing the behind-the-scenes creative and personal struggles of his flamboyant Southern writer Conrad Earp (Norton) and self-absorbed director Schubert Green (Brody).

Every character in the widescreen, pastel-hued film we know as Asteroid City has, as detailed in Cranston’s documentary, its own fictional actor in the production of Earp and Green. So, sure enough, we’re looking at movie star Scarlett Johansson playing a stage actor playing a fictional movie star named Midge, in what’s basically a pastiche of a ’50s sci-fi B movie, told through a pastiche of a Tennessee Williams play, related through the pastiche of a Twilight Zone-style TV show. At what point, surely, the question is because? Doesn’t Anderson’s intelligence get in his own way?

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This reviewer believes it’s a technique he uses to create a kind of detachment and self-aware detachment, as is the typically low-key acting style he favors. But previously, and clearly this is where opinion can be sharply divided, the open-ended story-within-stories approach in, say, Moonrise Kingdom or The French Dispatch worked against more emotional involvement. Here, along with a narrative that explicitly posits something bigger, the recognition of an external force that may be shaping your life demands that you step back to find out where you really are. And what could have been a mere space oddity creeps into an admittedly lo-fi space odyssey for those in this sleepy desert town.

Asteroid City Review Score: 4/5

It moves at a great pace, is packed with effective sight and word gags, and looks gorgeous in its pale blue and tangerine color palette. And for all the familiar fun of stylistic devices, layouts, and faces, Asteroid City is finally quietly tackling something like a final new frontier in a Wes Anderson movie. It is worth boldly going with him for a while longer.

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Asteroid City hits theaters June 23, 2023. For more TV and movie reviews, click here.