Latest Review – Asteroid City [Universal Pictures] [Theatrical]


Universal Pictures

Dir. Wes Anderson

Genre: Comedy | Drama | Sci-Fi • Year: 2023 • Country: USA • Running Time: 105 minutes • Certificate: 12A • Aspect Ratio: Image: Colour | B&W • Language: English

There are a number of key features that define the unique works of Wes Anderson; the bold, vibrant colours, the surreal visuals, sharp symmetry and a general quirkiness that underlines each film.

Following its rise on social media, the term ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ is now widely used to celebrate Anderson’s singular aesthetic and highlight the real world locations that just happen to bare a resemblance to those seen in the director’s films.

Asteroid City finds Wes Anderson at what might well be his most Wes Anderson to date in this whimsical homage to the postwar America of the twentieth century, thought here it’s certainly not accidental.

Anderson’s meta-movie opens in a 1950s-era broadcast soundstage – captured in black and white and presented in Academy ratio – as Bryan Cranston’s host introduces the behind-the-scenes production of the fictional drama, Asteroid City. The film then switches back and forth between the backstage drama and the events of Asteroid City, which are presented in hyper-saturated widescreen format, in stark contrast to the black and white.

The fictionalised drama of Asteroid City is set against the backdrop of the Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention in a Southwestern desert town in the September of 1955, located just by an atomic test site with Cold War paranoia strong in the air. This ultra-stylised, typically-Andersonian world is home to a train station, a gas station, a diner (which forms a key social hub), an observatory, a motel and a large asteroid crater, after which the town takes its name.

One by one, the quirky cast of characters begins to arrive in town as students and families come to collect their Stargazer awards and fellowships. We first meet war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), his teenage son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) – ‘Brainiac’ as his later mother called him – and his three young daughters, who arrive in town early due to a broken down car. Later we meet famed actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) along with her highly intelligent teenage daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards). Elsewhere there’s army General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) who is hosting the convention, young teacher June (Maya Hawke) who is chaperoning a busload of chaotic elementary-school children, an increasingly stressed motel manager (Steve Carell) and Augie’s father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) who is en-route to collect his grandkids, along with a band of singing cowboys.

During the awards presentation a rather comical-looking alien descends from a UFO above the crater and then disappears with the town’s precious meteorite fragment, causing the town to be placed under strict military quarantine.

It is in these moments of quarantine where the relationships really begin to develop. Woodrow and Dinah grow close as they bond over nerdy memory games with their fellow cadets, meanwhile Augie and Midge develop a closer relationship as they converse through the windows of their motel rooms. There are some really touching moments of pathos too (and excellent performances from Schwartzman and Johansson) as Anderson explores loneliness, grief, the way we process our emotions and how we begin to understand our place in the universe.

Anderson then intersperses the events of Asteroid City with a behind the scenes portrait of renowned playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and his heartfelt discussions with Jones Hall, the actor playing Steenbeck, as they again ruminate on the meaning of life and their mutual understanding of the play. It’s therapy through art.

As with all Anderson’s films, Asteroid City is bursting with warmth, charm and humorous moments that just make you smile. The production design is typically superb and the rich saturation works wonderfully well.

The film is certainly a step up from Anderson’s previous outing, The French Dispatch, but it isn’t without its issues. For all its visual splendour and nostalgia, the meta-framing approach doesn’t always work and the black and white sequences often slow down and detract from the more interesting colour sequences in the town.

At its best, Asteroid City is pure Wes Anderson, full of the signature deadpan humour, offbeat characters, bold design elements and fun cameos (Jeff Goldblum!) that we’ve grown to know and love, but Anderson is now very aware of this and has begun to stretch the quirky-factor just a little too far.

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