‘Asteroid City’ review: Wes Anderson’s homage to Steven Spielberg is among his most meta and most melancholic | Cannes
With an explosion of pastel colours, precise camera moves and a whimsical script, Asteroid City is Wes Anderson operating at his best, still doing his usual quirky thing. His latest is another testament to the ongoing power of his one-of-a-kind, special style of filmmaking which here develops to become more mature and melancholic as a family deals with some serious issues.
Set in the 1950s, Asteroid City is an arid American town located in the middle of a desert. The biggest attraction, and the namesake of the town, is a small remnant of an asteroid that landed and formed a crater over 3,000 years ago. The story begins as a family of five, minus their mother, arrives in Asteroid City after being towed into town by a truck. War photographer and father Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) brings the car to the local mechanic (Matt Dillon), who attempts to fix his car before it promptly explodes, leading Augie to call his father-in-law (Tom Hanks, playing a Bill Murray-type role) for further assistance with the kids.
Joining the Steenbeck family is a whole host of quirky individuals including a famed actress (Scarlett Johansson), a motel concierge (Steve Carell, who actually replaced Anderson staple Bill Murray after he got COVID) and a school teacher (Maya Hawke) with a class full of students, among many other visitors. The relative normalcy of the desert town, which hosts regular nuclear tests, is changed as a student science fair for junior stargazers and space cadets is interrupted by an alien who steals the namesake from the town’s iconic crater. This brief incursion sends the US army into overdrive, quarantining the entire town’s population and interrogating everyone to try and contain the situation. Despite their best attempts to deny the alien’s existence, the people can’t forget and try to figure out where the alien is from and why it returned after thousands of years to steal the meteor.
Beginning with the on-screen narration of Bryan Cranston’s fictional narrator, he introduces the audience to a theatre play set in the made-up town of Asteroid City. Shot in beautiful black-and-white and framed in 4:3 Academy ratio, Edward Norton’s novelist is revealed as the writer of the story to come. Anderson swiftly establishes the film’s meta-narrative, as well as the structure by introducing the inaugural title card for act one; there are three acts and an epilogue. What proceeds is an all-timer for Anderson as it quickly cuts to the vibrant, pastel-soaked landscape of Asteroid City as the title cards roll to the toe-tapping song “Freight Train”. It’s one of the best openings of any of his films to date.
Just like the entirety of his repertoire, Asteroid City has a distinct style, in terms of; dialogue, direction, production design, cinematography and music. With the upcoming release of said film, TikTok has gone wild with fans starting a trend that emulates his stylistic choices, alongside fully AI-generated trailers based on other films in his style (The Galactic Menagerie is a favourite, a Star Wars spoof). While being just as quirky and witty as the rest, this film manages to grapple with much darker and melancholic emotions. Grief is front and centre, especially with the Steenbeck family who recently lost their mother, Anderson allows Schwartzman’s character to get pretty deep into his feelings, but never at the expense of the film’s churning, fast-paced narrative. This may seem strange at first, as the writer-director doesn’t normally delve into a more sombre tone, but he does find a fine balance somewhere in the middle of the film. Perhaps, this is a sign of growing maturity to one of cinema’s greatest working auteurs.
The events in Asteroid City are all fictional, it’s a nightly play narrated by Bryan Cranston’s character and performed by all the actors who play the fabricated characters seen in the town. This is an extremely clever framing device which allows Anderson to pay homage to the art of theatre, just like he’s done with writing (The Grand Budapest) and journalism (The French Dispatch). Perhaps, filmmaking is next? Defined by his meticulous attention to staging, it makes perfect sense that Anderson made this move as he knowingly draws attention to his go-to style of mise-en-scene. Asteroid City is Anderson at his most meta.
Realised in glorious wide-screen Kodak film and boxy black-and-white by veteran cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Asteroid City is a film of beauty in all of its luxurious vividness. Another regular pairing that returns with this year’s in-competition Cannes title is composer Alexandre Desplat whose comical score adds to the DNA of the film. But it’s not just the behind-the-scenes crew that reunites with the Grand Budapest Hotel director, a large swath of the film’s expansive ensemble are regular Anderson players. Veterans Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Jeffery Wright lead the pack with newcomers Scarlet Johansson and Bryan Cranston making a serious impression. The ensemble delivers Anderson’s lines with pitch-perfect pitch and precision, nailing every last word and action. They are all equally good in what could’ve been a star-loaded flop, but Anderson has proven he’s the master of ensembles over the years.
Asteroid City is a wonderfully rousing and whimsical ride of idiosyncrasies. It’s Wes Anderson’s homage to sci-fi movies, Steven Spielberg is even thanked in the credits, and the theatre. The quirky auteur never struggles to retain his unique style while also giving tribute to his inspirations; but really, was that ever in question? While it’s not The Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom, Asteroid City will find its place among the top tier of his films and audiences will have a phenomenal time. It will surely be a top hit this summer.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival where Asteroid City premiered in competition. Focus Features will release the film in the Los Angeles and New York City on June 16 and across the U.S. on June 23.
Photo courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features