Asteroid City review: Wes Anderson goes lo-fi sci-fi with starry cast

Cameron Frew
Tom Hanks in Asteroid City

Wes Anderson looks to the stars in every sense with Asteroid City, his new sci-fi Western confection, packed with A-listers – and an alien. But can the filmmaker ever really take a giant step outside of (t)his cinematic world?

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

You’ll acknowledge the regular troupe of actors (Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and co) back for another series of droll, deadpan duologues; the intricate, colour-coded, chocolate box-pretty art direction; the trademark, mathematically precise camera moves; and tales of bruised parent-child relationships and the awkward flutterings of young love. So far, so Wes.

Wes Anderson is thinking outside the chocolate box

Few directors divide audiences as much as Anderson has done of late. Some have doubled down in their love of his singular visions, especially in an era of often-interchangeable superhero and fantasy blockbusters. Others, even previous admirers, have felt a sense of diminishing returns of the auteur’s ongoing cinematic global 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 just another district of Wes’ World. It’s cute and chic, but, ultimately, a chain of designer boutique hotels can be a chain to weigh you down artistically. Or at least start a TikTok replica craze.

So, it’s heartening to see Asteroid City reaching for life beyond planet Earth. It’s as if Anderson is attempting to get outside, or at least, a little extra(-terrestrial) perspective on his coterie of characters, all hitherto trapped within their quirks and habits. Because when a certain celestial event occurs, in the middle of a Junior Stargazers / Space Cadet Convention, and the US military initiates an actual lockdown while they investigate, the various denizens of and visitors to Asteroid City, start 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 a group of characters it is. Anderson has always attracted big names to appear in his films, but this is his biggest, 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 do Steve Carell, Hong Chau, Matt Dillon, Margot Robbie, Tom Hanks, and a great disguised cameo from an Anderson regular in a role that tips its hat at that actor’s previous sci-fi movie outings.

It’s actually far too big a cast and, inevitably, certain folk — including Dillon’s mechanic, Carell’s obsequious hotel manager, Maya Hawke’s flustered schoolteacher, and a blink-and-miss-her Robbie —have the bare minimum to do. Johansson and Hanks fare better. They both orbit around arguably the main character, Schwartzman’s Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer and recent widower with four kids, one of whom Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is a bona fide scientific genius.

Hanks is Augie’s gruff father-in-law Stanley, reluctantly stepping in to care for his grandkids. Johansson plays famous actress Midge Campbell, whose own daughter (Grace Edwards) is another Junior Stargazer, and for a while, it looks like both pairs of Steenbeck and Campbell parents and teenagers might embark on tentative romances. However, the course of true love rarely runs smoothly in Wes’ World.

Reframing the framing devices

Or should we say, Wes’ Worlds? Anderson is nowadays rarely content to tell a straightforward story and, indeed, akin to Grand Budapest’s nested narratives, there are at least three layers to peel back here. The film begins with a black-and-white television broadcast hosted by Cranston’s commanding to-camera narrator. His show outlines the making of a hit play called ‘Asteroid City’, detailing the behind-the-scenes creative and personal struggles of its flamboyant Southern writer Conrad Earp (Norton) and ego-driven director Schubert Green (Brody).

Every character in the widescreen, pastel-hued film we know as Asteroid City has, as detailed by Cranston’s documentary, their own fictional performer in Earp and Green’s production. So, effectively, we’re watching movie star Scarlett Johansson playing a stage actor playing a fictional movie star called Midge, in what’s basically a pastiche of a 1950s sci-fi B-movie, told through a pastiche of a Tennessee Williams play, related through the pastiche of a Twilight Zone-esque TV show. At which point, surely, the question is why? Isn’t Anderson’s cleverness getting in his own way?

This reviewer believes it’s a technique he uses to fashion a sort of self-aware distancing and detachment, as is the typically understated performance style he favours. But previously – and clearly, this is where opinion can sharply split – the overt stories-within-stories approach in, say, Moonrise Kingdom or The French Dispatch worked against greater emotional involvement. Here, allied to a narrative that explicitly posits something greater out there, the acknowledgement of an external force that may be shaping your life, demands that you step back to figure out where you really are. And what could’ve been a mere space oddity, becomes, by stealth, an admittedly lo-fi space odyssey for those in this sleepy desert town.

Asteroid City review score: 4/5

It moves at a great clip, it’s packed with effective sight and verbal gags, and it looks gorgeous in its pale blue and tangerine color palette. And for all the familiar fun of the stylistic devices, designs, and faces, Asteroid City does ultimately, quietly, broach something of a new final frontier in a Wes Anderson film. It’s worth boldly going with him for a little while longer.

Asteroid City hits cinemas on June 23, 2023. For more of our TV & movie reviews, click here.

Sign up to Dexerto for free and receive:
Fewer Ads|Dark Mode|Deals in Gaming, TV and Movies, and Tech