Whether you love his work or not, Wes Anderson is indisputably one of the most gifted filmmakers of the modern cinematic era. His 11th feature film, Asteroid City is the writer-director’s first dabble in science-fiction. However, in true Anderson fashion, he dips his toes into the genre while toying with his own signature practices. As he’s done before, Anderson employs meta-storytelling by using a teleplay style narrator (Bryan Cranston) for the expository establishment of actors preparing a stage play called “Asteroid City.” Splendidly shot by Anderson’s go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman with a saturated softness that only shooting on Kodak film can achieve, we’re next taken on a vibrant expedition to a small 1950s southwestern town known best for its main tourist attraction: a small meteor at the center of a comically large crater.
Hosting the Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention in Asteroid City brings together a concoction of unlikely characters consisting of parents, children, and scientists for friendly scholarly competitions and communal activities. When an adorable alien visitor makes a surprise appearance, the unknowing residents and temporary visitors of the town are forced to quarantine by the U.S. military. This makes way for a series of unpredictable events as some bonds are formed while others are broken within the people of Asteroid City.
Like all of Wes Anderson’s creative endeavors, Asteroid City boasts an all-star cast ensemble that only he could cultivate. The kaleidoscope of quirky characters, who are just as colorful as the world around them, includes returning Anderson collaborators Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Tony Revolori, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Wright, and Stephen Park – the last two of which stole the show in 2021’s The French Dispatch. Meanwhile, Asteroid City also marks the first time recognizable faces like Maya Hawke, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, and Hong Chau star in an Anderson movie.
The character at the core of the narrative is Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), an accomplished war photographer whose car conveniently breaks down at the destination of a road trip with his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three daughters to the convention. Staying in the cabin next door to the Steenbecks is Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a dashing yet out-of-luck movie star studying for her next role. With an ensemble so big, it was always inevitable that Anderson and Roman Coppola, who helped develop the story, were going to give some characters far more to do than others. But Asteroid City knows how to save which specific actors for just the right moments.
Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson are the clear standouts with their romance plot, yet the majority of the cast nonetheless manages to savor their time on screen through both comedic and heartfelt moments. One of them is Steve Carell as a motel manager who welcomes his guests to Asteroid City by giving the characters and the audience a guided tour around the amenities, which hilariously includes retro vending machines for just about anything imaginable. Additionally, Tom Hanks gives one of the more emotionally provoking performances in the film as Augie’s father-in-law Stanley Zak, who is learning how to navigate his grandchildren’s grief as well as his own.
The humorous aspects in Asteroid City feel reminiscent of the slapstick comedy seen most commonly in silent films, which is only amplified by the gloriously cartoonish world that Anderson vividly brings to life. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, who worked on Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs, and won the Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel, has outdone himself here. Much credit of course goes to Anderson’s vision and world-building capabilities, though it should be equally awarded to Stockhausen’s immaculate designs. Between the endearing cabins and retro vending machines, you’re left wanting to take your next trip to the whimsically charming town, and even feeling slightly envious of the cast and crew that were able to witness the tangible sets themselves.
On the surface, the overarching story of Asteroid City appears safe as it doesn’t necessarily take any significant risks, even for a relatively straightforward Wes Anderson film. Although, after letting its message simmer in your mind for some time, this seems to be exactly the point. Intermittently, we are hoisted back into the backstage antics of the meta play prompted by a change in aspect ratio and a shift from saturated sun-bleached pastels to a harsh black-and-white, playing into the duality of dreams and reality.
After Augie inflicts pain on himself during one of his many conversations with Midge, the nameless actor (still played by Jason Schwartzman) leaves the stage exclaiming that he doesn’t understand the actions of his character in what feels to be a critique on how not everything in art has to be explicitly justified in order to be emotionally valid. Summed up in an unexpectedly powerful smoking break scene opposite Margot Robbie, Schwartzman’s actor persona reminisces on the cut scene they could have shared, insinuating how sacrifices made during the artistic processes can often be a mistake and giving in to creative indulgence is not as dire as it may seem.
Seeing Wes Anderson peer into elements of sci-fi, from laser guns to extraterrestrials, while challenging his own storytelling techniques unlocks the potential and desire as a viewer to see what surprises this filmmaker still has up his sleeves this far into his profound career. The narrative of Asteroid City and its connotations are very much left for you to make what you will of it. With subtle underlying notes on grief, the human condition, and our constant desire to understand the incomprehensible, Asteroid City in the best way possible leaves us with a mind full of endless thoughts. No matter what you make of it though, Anderson’s latest is near impossible to watch without a grin and is the outcome of utterly enchanting filmmaking from start to finish.