Review: Wes Anderson Returns to Wonderful Form in Star-Studded, Highly Stylized Asteroid City

Having recently revisited five other key works by writer/director Wes Anderson and having a clear memory of how I feel about the others I haven’t watched recently, it’s fair to say that I’m an admirer of his approach to storytelling and filmmaking. There’s something about the apathetic delivery by most of his actors that makes me concentrate more on the words they’re saying and see deeper into the pain, heartbreak and frustration. It’s also quite often screamingly funny. Anderson’s use of production design, color, makeup, miniatures, and segmented storytelling all combine to make an experience so singular and unique that it is both easily identifiable and difficult for up-and-coming filmmakers to emulate, which I think is a good thing—we only need one Wes Anderson, thank you very much.

But any time Anderson strays from his own formula, I find myself even more impressed. Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, these are standout performances because they don’t subscribe to what people think of as the Anderson style of filmmaking, and that’s 100 percent by design, because no one enjoys making fun of Wes Anderson more than Wes Anderson.

His latest, Asteroid City, has all the touchstones of Anderson’s earlier works, including a specific color design that is partially whited out by the harsh sunlight unique to the Spanish desert where the film was shot. Set circa 1955, in the American town that gives the film its name, this isolated community is home to an annual event for Junior Stargazers and a Space Cadet convention (organized to bring students and parents from across the country for fellowship and scholarly competition).

The segments of Asteroid City are actually the acts and scenes of a fictional, world-famous play. The film is set up as part documentary, narrated by a host played by Bryan Cranston, who tells the tale of playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton, doing his best knockoff Tennessee Williams), who is staging the play Asteroid City. But as we explore the inner-workings of the actors and Earp’s struggles to get the play up and running, we see the scenes as they would be realized as a movie. 

With a screenplay by Anderson and regular collaborator Roman Coppola, the film tackles the relationships and divides between parents and children, husbands and wives, as well as would-be lovers who would never have met or been forced to spend time together, were it not for the unexpected and highly disruptive appearance of an alien during a ceremony called Asteroid Day, celebrating the town’s most famous object: a small asteroid that landed on this spot decades earlier. Jeffrey Wright plays General Grif Gibson, the military man in charge of the festivities, who immediately contacts the president when the alien makes an appearance and then locks down the area until they can figure out a plan of action.

Among those trapped in Asteroid City are Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a recent widower with four children (he hasn’t told them that their mother is dead). The eldes,t Woodrow (Jake Ryan), is the genius in the family who has a shot at winning a grant at this scholarly competition. When the family car breaks down, Augie is forced to call his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), who doesn’t like him much, but would do just about anything for his grandchildren. Others stranded in town include well-known movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), parents of some of the other kids in the competition (Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park), young teacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke), the local mechanic (Matt Dillon), the motel manager (Steve Carell), and a variety of other characters played by Hong Chau, Rupert Friend, and Tony Revolori. And I’m only scratching the surface of who all is in this movie. Jeff Goldblum plays the damn alien.

When the perspective shifts back to the black-and-white theater documentary, we see the “actors” playing these characters, and while it sounds complicated and dense, it’s anything but. It is that special type of Anderson weirdness. And with Asteroid City crossing the line into science fiction at times, it’s also a different kind of weirdness, and it makes the whole affair seem charming, accessible, and quite funny when it isn’t heartbreaking (that element of Anderson hasn’t changed for this film). 

At its heart, the movie is really about this small group of hyper-intelligent children who are inventing technology and weaponry that is miles beyond what the world’s governments are capable of, and barely anyone is noticing this, simply because they’re unusual kids. They aren’t being bullied, but they are being marginalized, and that will impact their lives forever. But while they are together in Asteroid City, they are surrounded by kindred spirits, and it makes them feel a little less alone. You may have to do a little bit of digging to get to that message, but it’s well worth the effort. I think that’s true of most of Anderson’s works, actually.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.