Like any Wes Anderson film, ‘Asteroid City’ is the epitome of a Wes Anderson film. A film about a TV show about a play within a play “about infinity and I don’t know what else” (as one character describes it), this delightfully deep desert charmer – by far the best director’s effort since ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’ and in some ways the most poignant thing I’ve ever done—boasts all of its usual hallmarks and then some. A multi-layered framing device, diorama and Tilda Swinton affectionately saying things like “I’ve never had kids, but sometimes I wonder if I wish I had” are just a few of the many signature flourishes you might recognize from Anderson’s previous work and/or the endless parade of AI-generated TikToks that mimic his style.
As expected, the world of “Asteroid City” is meticulously arranged with rote precision, and as expected, that world is then populated by memorable characters seeking to assert the same degree of control over their own lives. Characters such as Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a grieving war photographer waiting for the perfect moment to tell his four young children that their mom just died, as if there was a correct way to drop that kind of bomb on someone. “It’s never the right time,” he complains to his never-liked father-in-law (a wonderfully sour Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak, a gun always sticking in the front of his shorts). “The time is always wrong,” Stanley replies.
The good news for Augie is that his teenage son Woodrow (8th grade extraordinaire Jake Ryan) is probably smart enough to figure this out on his own; after all, the science prodigy is one of four space cadets who have been invited to the 1955 Junior Stargazer Convention in the tiny southwestern outpost of Asteroid City, where they will be able to showcase their latest inventions to a government delegation that includes five-star General Grif Gribson (Jeffrey Wright) and famed astronomer Dr. Hickenlooper (Swinton).
Perhaps most notable of the many other figures in town for the weekend is famed movie star Midge Campbell (a Scarlett Johansson, in full control of her star power), who looks like Liz Taylor, takes on Marilyn Monroe, and materializes in the front window of Augie’s motel room with the cosmic alignment of a solar eclipse. She’s always rehearsing for something and never loses her signal. Her daughter Dinah, also feted at Asteroid City, will inspire a similar awe in Woodrow; normal for the course in a movie where love and loss orbit each other in an endless chase, bound together by the gravity shared between them.
So far, so typical, although Asteroid City itself is as vibrant and elaborate a place as Anderson ever envisioned. Home to exactly 87 people, this one-pump town is split on either side of a long, deserted highway and criss-crossed by a series of train tracks that the government uses to transport everything from pecans to nuclear warheads. There’s a dining table with 12 stools, a car court with 10 booths, and a vending machine where you can buy small plots of land as if they were candy bars. There’s an unfinished exit ramp that blocks cars about 15 feet high, and in the distance, a huge crater formed by a meteorite that’s been waiting at the bottom for who knows how many years.
Bathing in the “clean light” of the desert sun, Robert Yeoman’s camera reveals most of these views in the span of a single 360-degree rotation, a bending that underscores Anderson’s absolute dominance of the Chinchón del film, where soon his characters are trapped against their will, thus forcing them to surrender to the illusion of control that has characterized so many of Anderson’s characters throughout his career. It’s perhaps the most radical thing to ever happen in any of his films—the kind of transformative moment the AI could never imagine, no matter how much data it ingested—and it spins “Asteroid City” in a new direction. cosmic. What it was until then As soon as another Wes Anderson’s immaculate film suddenly becomes one of a kind.
This review will take a mockingly conservative approach to spoilers and stop short of anything revealed in the trailers, but let’s just say that everyone in Asteroid City will be more directly confronted with the unknown than anyone in a movie has been before. by Wes Anderson. . Imagine if Mr. Fox’s encounter with the wolf on the hill happened at the end of the first act instead of the end of the third, or if Steve Zissou came face to face with the jaguar shark who ate his friend only minutes later that the jaguar shark ate his friend. Imagine if any of Anderson’s more resolute but vulnerable characters – all of whom have devised intricate life systems to impose some degree of control over a chaotic universe – were forced to come to terms with their own helplessness from the outset.
Like any Wes Anderson hero worth their salt, Augie Steenbeck simply hopes to overcome his pain and doubt in the hope that what comes next will magically reveal itself to him like the photographs he develops in his portable darkroom. “Am I doing him any good?” Augie asks in a self-reflective digression that takes full advantage of the film’s spectacular framing device, asking the same question many of Anderson’s characters are implicitly asking. But then an ellipse appears in the space above him, interrupting the sentence going on in Augie’s mind, and in a brilliant flash of green light it becomes clear that he will have to find his own way in this world, using the tools and people at his disposal. . After that moment, neither he nor anyone else in Asteroid City will ever be able to shake the feeling that – someone else said – we are all just characters in a play we don’t understand.
In Asteroid City it might be a metaphor, but in “Asteroid City” it should be taken literally. It takes a while to figure out what Anderson is doing with his latest and most convoluted array of nested framing devices, and the comically pointless speed with which Bryan Cranston moves through the initial set-up doesn’t seem to be doing the audience any favors. It’s pretty clear that all the people we meet in Asteroid City are also in a TV production of an (unproduced) play of the same name, but why and to what end is only revealed after time.
At first, that context and its subsequent intrusions into the story — complete with scene headers letting you know exactly where you are in the film and what might happen next — might seem like the overly fussy directorial flourishes of a filmmaker who’s often accused to indulge in such things at public expense. But, as is often the case in This director’s work, the self-reflexive layering ultimately turns out to be to our advantage.
In Wes Anderson’s films, every story has an author, and some of those authors have even been published. The title cards, chapter titles, and plays within plays (within TV shows within movies) conspire to reflect the insecurities of hyperstructured characters who are too fragile to face life’s mess head-on or see it. clearly without a layer to remove. Their lives are pre-interpolated, like a dream our brains have been desperately trying to organize from the artillery spray of random neuronal firing, and this has never been more true for anyone than it is for the people of Asteroid City. a perfect setting for Anderson’s most dreamlike film, in the way so many dreams stage hyper-detailed scenarios against the backdrop of an infinite void. Royal Tenenbaum just needed a narrator, but Augie Steenbeck requires a framing device so elaborate that it ultimately becomes impossible to analyze where he ends and the next person begins.
And so it goes with many of the characters in a film that never lets you forget that Scarlett Johansson is an actress playing an actress playing an actress. But if the interstitial scenes in “Asteroid City” are destabilizing by nature (in a Why is Augie suddenly making out with a Kentucky fried Edward Norton? sort of), you don’t need a tight grip on the mechanics of how everything fits together to be crushed by the effect of feeling everything snap into place.
This is a film that sneaks up on you, that makes you think it’s just a scattered collection of understated little details and gags. Is there Matt Dillon as a deadpan mechanic, and is there Maya Hawke singing a ditty with Jarvis Cocker, and… is it Bob Balaban lurking in the background down there? Some of the bits and bobs immediately feel like high-end Anderson (e.g. the high-speed chase through town, Liev Schreiber running around with a purple death ray), while others (the Junior Stargazers memory games, Steve Carrell’s ubiquitous hotel manager) left me wondering if “Asteroid City” was spreading too much to extract anything meaningful from the comedy of pain within it.
But the deeper this film disappears into itself, the more its game-like beats begin to create their own rhymes. As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that everything in “Asteroid City” is in service of Augie’s tormenting uncertainty and wavering determination. It all comes back to the indivisiblely Andersonian notion that whatever peace we can find in this world depends on harnessing the various things we can never figure out about it. For Augie, it’s the loss of him. For Woodrow, the wonder of him. “Use your pain,” instructs a character. “Trust your curiosity,” implores another. There are forces in the universe that Augie will never be able to capture on film, but “Asteroid City” suggests that all the more reason to look for them through his camera lens.
If all of Anderson’s films are underpinned by the tension between order and chaos, uncertainty and doubt, “Asteroid City” is the first to take that tension as its subject matter, often expressing it through the friction created by the rubbing of its various levels of non- reality. Some might see it as an amused navel-gazing, but the unexpected moment near the end where Anderson strikes some balance between those contradictory forces – with a greater witnessed by a movie star whose name you suddenly remember seeing in the credits some 100 minutes earlier – it’s so extraordinarily good and deserved that the artifice surrounding it simply fades away.
Will Augie ever see his wife again? It is hard to say. But somewhere in Asteroid City, or the play called “Asteroid City” within the play called “Asteroid City” within the TV show whose title we never learn or instantly forget, he will come to appreciate that death it’s just another of the great unknowns we all have to live with in the daydream we share together; a mystery as cold as a meteorite at the bottom of a crater, as infinite as the stars in the night sky above.
‘Asteroid City’ premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on Friday, June 16.