Asteroid City

Image courtesy Universal Pictures

M, 105 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

To reassure anyone who may get lost along the way, the new film from Wes Anderson begins with a droll explanatory prologue delivered in sonorous tones by its host, Bryan Cranston. There are chapter intertitles along the way and there is even an epilogue of sorts to conclude, but for all of this we might be wondering if there were something we missed. This filmmaker’s movies are like that.

A 360-camera pan from the main street reveals a sign to the town’s single attraction, a meteorite impact crater that is a curiously recent 5,000 years old. Although Asteroid City doesn’t have much to offer, a convention for junior space cadets is being held there. Once the students depart, the town will return to the forlorn and middle-of-nowhere character it had before.

Photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) has brought his geeky son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), along to participate, but it will be a testy time for them both. Moreover, the father has some difficult news that he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to share with the teenager and his little sisters.

A celebrity actor, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), has also rolled up, bringing her bored and disaffected daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), along for the junior stargazer convention too. Things between them are strained as well.

 An old West ambience supplied by the art department during a shoot that took place in Spain

The space science convention is situated under clear, open skies, as it should be. The surrounding desert dotted with saguaro cacti and mesas stretches towards the horizon with old West ambience supplied by the art department during a shoot that took place in Spain.

The timeframe is the mid-1950s, a time when atomic bomb tests and UFO sighting were well underway. Even in the remote American South-West, a train transporting cargo of avocadoes and pecans has a nuclear warhead on board, a reminder of the geopolitical tensions of the outside world.

In comic scenes during the convention, a spaceship suddenly appears above, and a single alien descends among them. The tall and spindly creature (Jeff Goldblum in a body suit, by the way) meekly borrows an asteroid exhibit before darting back on board, but not before, we briefly see things through its POV. The military quickly assemble to deal with this unforeseen engagement, but as Anderson shows there is nothing to fear.

Tom Hanks is spot-on as Augie’s gun-toting father-in-law, but many others may simply be along for the ride—or the jamon

The list of well-known actors besides Goldblum who have been cast with bit parts—like Adrien Brody, Steve Carell, Edward Norton, Margot Robbie, Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber—is long. It suggests talent squandered, even if they were all mates and happy to lend their names to the project. Johansson and Schwartzman are convincing as parents trying to manage their responsibilities while depressed or grieving, Tom Hanks is spot-on as Augie’s gun-toting father-in-law, and Tilda Swinton makes an impression too, but many of the others seem to be along for the ride—or the jamon.

The look that Wes Anderson has created with his cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, is as memorable as ever, with visuals that flip between the black-and-white of the framing story and colour for the events at Asteroid City. The intense pastel palette is reminiscent of the highly colour-saturated look of Technicolor.

There are other reminders of mid-20th century American pop culture. Such as a cheeky roadrunner that hangs out on the edge of town, and a soundtrack peppered with bluegrass and country and western songs from Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and others.

A Wes Anderson movie offers entrée to the world of an eccentric audio-visual miniaturist filmmaker who revels in detail that we can barely process in time before our attention is drawn to something else. The size of his art department and visual effects team here is testament to the effort involved in realising the ambitious vision that has extended to all his work, including the wonderful Moonrise Kingdom, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Isle of Dogs and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The issues of family dysfunction are there on the sidelines, the quirkiness and cleverness are at the usual level, and there are various references to the current state of the US, but it may be difficult for some to tune into Asteroid City. The clever and idiosyncratic style of story-telling that is the Wes Anderson signature may be an acquired taste, yet there is nothing quite like it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 August 2023. Also published at Rotten Tomatoes