Asteroid City

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Wes Anderson


Bryan Cranston Jason Schwartzman Maya Hawke Scarlett Johansson Steve Carell Tom Hanks


There are event movies, and there are Event Movies. Wes Anderson movies are very much the latter.


Is this a perfect film? Or the perfect film?

In Retrospect.

One we’ll be rewatching over and over and over again.

The maestro returns, the patented formula tweaked to blissful perfection in this witty and deeply moving exploration of the tools that we produce to help us see beyond our everyday vision.

The last time Wes Anderson took us on a class trip to the theatre, optional safety glasses and earplugs were provided to all patrons. With his scintillating and archly metafictional new work, Asteroid City, he allows us to bask in the frivolous delights of a play, while also carefully dismantling the process of artistic creation in real time. It’s the type of film you might imagine the great Max Fischer himself might have directed had his scholastic brief encompassed a bells-and-whistles homage to mid-century pulp science fiction.

For this one, with its telescopic sights set on the outer pockets of existence, travellers are loaded up with a goldfish bowl space helmet, a vintage SLR camera, a vending machine Martini and some industry-grade seatbelts, all the better for protecting from the whiplash one might experience from taking in an extremely tall tale which travels at roughly 17,500 mph.

So what is this strange object? It is, on one level, an adventure picture about the possibilities of deep space exploration, about meek extraterrestrial visitors, the family unit in crisis (of course!), and a slew of beautiful lost souls succumbing, at the expense of love, to the allure of the working life. Or more specifically, a love of making things with your hands. On another level, it is a moving paean to the actors whose expressive faces, whose Chablis-dry line deliveries, and whose ardent commitment to what they view as a grand and coherent vision, has powered Anderson’s pictures for coming-up-to 30 years.

Classics of the Anderson corpus such as The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch employ a literary framing device to both justify the expressionist flights of fancy on show, and use this playful disconnect to mine concentrated levels of human emotion. Asteroid City is about the story, and the telling there-of. It’s the most gorgeous cinematic Matryoshka doll you ever did see. Or more like little nesting space vessels, breaking apart as they ascend into the Techincolor atmosphere. Passion radiates from the screen, but in a way that’s more self-critical and less earnest than his previous 12-gun-salute to the classic-era scribes of the New Yorker magazine, The French Dispatch. Could this be his masterpiece? Could it?

A short digression: for this writer, seeing 1998’s Rushmore at the cinema at an age where my mind and taste were still rather malleable, my horizons were jarringly, thrillingly expanded. Asteroid City recreates that blissful formative feeling, in that it plays like Anderson’s pristine moment of artistic transcendence, where he has finally passed through the stargate of whimsical method and has almost become at one with the medium he so adores. As one of modern cinema’s arch nostalgists, and (one might speculate) a person who believes he was born in the wrong era, it’s terribly moving to be made to feel nostalgic about the abiding pleasures of his own work.

But let’s back-track for a sec: “pristine” is most certainly le mot juste to describe Asteroid City, as even for a director prized for his compositional fastidiousness, this one refines his modus operandi into something that is both immaculate and a little more refined than usual. It’s also pristine in its merging of script, visuals, editing and performance, a film where all the moving parts purr in a way that’s almost erotic in its pleasure-giving capacities.

And yet, the story comprises tangled loose ends, discursive deconstructions of the drama, and a sense that we are merely observing a group of people in the process of passing through the landscape. One might even go so far as to describe this as Anderson’s first non-narrative feature, and it’s a formal attire that suits him mightily.

To drill down to specifics, the film offers a chronicle of the quietly profound machinations that occur in a culturally spartan yet scientifically fecund American desert tract that’s located on farm route six, mile 75 in an unspecified southwestern US state. Jason Schwartzman (an Anderson totem on sparkling form) plays Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer with a geometrically cut beard and intense mien that leads him to resemble Orson Welles’ hirsute mystery man, Mr Arkardin (though he’s actually inspired by Stanley Kubrick).

He’s in town with his brainiac son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to present an invention at this year’s Junior Stargazer festivities, in which a gaggle of scientists, military folk and intrigued onlookers gather to witness a once-in-a-generation cosmic event. Everyone is shacked up in a motel run by a raffish and relaxed Steve Carell (a wonderful new addition to Anderson stock players), and the recently-widowed Augie shares adjacent windows (and more) with unassuming grande dame of the big screen, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson, reminding us why we fell in love with her in the first place).

Meanwhile, timid schoolteacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke, another lovely new addition) attempts to corral the endlessly inquisitive members of her class while also being roped in by wanderin’ cowboy balladeer, Montana (Rupert Friend, who frankly deserves his own spin-off picture). The last person to mention is Bryan Cranston, our angular, Rod Serling-like narrator who connects the hot fictional plains of Asteroid City to the cold “reality” of a company of struggling sixties theatre actors searching for motivation through sloganeering and self-doubt.

Anderson uses these parallel timelines/realities as a way to comment, with bruising honesty, on his own place as a writer/director, while also creating a celebration of what it means for real working to play-act for a living. By constantly underscoring the artificial nature of the story, he has landed on a way to make everything feel more moving, where “finding” a character is akin to discovering a new constellation and earning the privilege to name it.

“Asteroid City might constitute a surprising and fulsome pivot to the loose-leaf modernism of Jean-Luc Godard”

From the perspective of influence, Anderson has always been chalked up as an acolyte of François Truffaut, with Jean-Pierre Léaud’s loquacious fop Antoine Doinel as his inspirational supreme being. This new film might constitute a surprising and fulsome pivot to the loose-leaf modernism of Jean-Luc Godard. There’s a vivid expressiveness to the visuals, a jazz-like impulsiveness to the structure, and an arch poeticism to the dialogue, where cadence, timbre and intonation are as important as meaning, if not more so.

The sheer musicality of the direction and the fluid connectivity of images takes Anderson’s craft to dizzy new heights. The set-square 90-degree pans that introduce us to the dusty burg of the title feel like they’ve been fondly ripped out of Week-end or Pierrot le Fou. It constitutes the poppy essence of JLG in his late-sixties pomp. As an ode to the joys of collective endeavour, you might even say this is Anderson’s most openly leftist work to date.

A little more French New Wave while we’re on the subject: one of the reasons why Jacques Demy’s 1967 film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is one of the greatest ever made is because the director emphasises the melancholy notion that cinema is a machine that allows you to make friends with people, and then by design, snatches those very same people away from you, forever. It is a story about the random intersections and serendipitous romantic clinches that occur between a group of radiant youths across a weekend in the pastel-hued port town of the title.

Asteroid City adopts a similar template, chronicling a brief, eventful gathering in a place on the edge of nowhere, and then teasing us with the notion that all such things must eventually come to an end. The play ends, the players disband, they make something else, and faint memories become documents of record. Both are films about the giddy excitement of going to the cinema, and that feeling of sorrow when the lights finally go up and the flickering image has gone away.

All this to say, Asteroid City is Anderson’s most complete, rich and surprising film to date, and perhaps his most autobiographical in some obscure, allegorical way, in that it stands as testament to how filmmaking is about bringing artists together and attuning them to a specific wavelength. On a more superficial level, it’s a film which pushes his patented funny/sad dichotomy to its wildest and most enjoyable extremes.

It runs you through the emotional wringer, one minute offering a jaw-dropping train-carriage screwball workout worthy of Howard Hawks, the next, giving a horrendously moving and perfectly judged little scene which involves one of the actors who was cut from the final production. Wes has punctured through the stratosphere, and the only question left to ask is, will he ever turn back to Earth, or venture off into the infinite.

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Published 20 Jun 2023

Tags: Adrien Brody Bryan Cranston Edward Norton Hong Chau Jason Schwartzman Jeffrey Wright Matt Dillon Maya Hawke Rupert Friend Scarlett Johansson Steve Carell Tilda Swinton Tom Hanks Wes Anderson Willem Dafoe


There are event movies, and there are Event Movies. Wes Anderson movies are very much the latter.


Is this a perfect film? Or the perfect film?

In Retrospect.

One we’ll be rewatching over and over and over again.

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