Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s most challenging movie to date.
Published on May 31, 2023
Rating 4.5 /5
After a messy anthology of The French Dispatch, Asteroid City is a vast improvement for a Wes Anderson movie. The iconic director is in top form with this 1950s sci-fi dramedy. It shifts between science fiction weirdness, Americana satire, wondrous dreams, and curtain-pulling meta-contemplations on death. All of it brews a surprisingly engaging tale of grief and existentialism amid all the hallmarks one has come to expect from Anderson.
There are two realities established for this tale. Existing in black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, a play about the fictional Asteroid City is established as a TV special narrated by Bryan Cranston. The play is in color and widescreen, presented as the typical Anderson narrative audiences have expected. While it’s not exactly the same draw as the creative stage conceptions within Rushmore, the parallel works well for the themes of this film.
The primary story of the staged fiction concerns the grieving Augie (Jason Swartzman) with his three little girls and his teenage son Woodrow (Jack Ryan). His wife died weeks ago, but he hasn’t found time to tell his kids about their mother’s passing. He chooses the worst time amid the teenage science showcase in the desert town of Asteroid City. This admittance is made all the more complicated by the bitter feelings of Augie’s father-in-law (Tom Hanks), a man torn between being nice to his grandchildren and shedding Auggie from his life.
Asteroid City becomes a big tourist spot with several other characters occupying the town. The biggest attraction for Auggie is the arrival of the semi-washed-up actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). They share neighboring motel rooms and talk through their windows, forming a bond as Auggie talks about his love of photography while Midge runs lines with Auggie. Providing a challenge for Woodrow is the scrutinizing government leader General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright). Other colorful characters include the quirky scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), the chipper singing cowboy Montana (Rupert Friend), and the odd hotel manager (Steve Carell), who dabbles in selling real estate via vending machines. And that’s just the characters that occupy the central play. The behind-the-scenes drama features such unique entities as the down-on-his-luck director (Adrien Brody), the devoted playwright (Edward Norton), and the one-scene actor (Jeff Goldblum) who plays the alien of the play.
The general premise of the story is that an alien briefly visits Asteroid City, resulting in the American government placing the town on lockdown. The alien fears, however, are more like background noise. In one scene, Midge brushes off Auggie’s legendary first photo of the alien and is more concerned with their relationship. What they’re more concerned about is death. One of the few passages about the alien is when Auggie states the alien looked at them as if they were doomed. Midge remarks that maybe they are. In defiance of that nihilism, Auggie does something drastic and places his hand on a hot grill. He won’t give a reason in his words but it should be obvious why he did this: He wants to feel alive.
Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s most challenging movie to date. It launches face-first into the deep end of existential dread and tackles the theme in a manner that is as artistically inclined as the director can muster while also finding meaning in this world. Wild stuff happens in this film, sure, but there’s also comfort with mortality that grows as the film progresses. One scene walks a fine line between directly addressing the audience and hiding behind colorful metaphors to make a point. The fact that Anderson took a swing this wild while still looking cool is a testament to the director’s legacy.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.