Review – Asteroid City

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Overview

Synopsis The small town of Asteroid City, Nevada, a fictional city created for a popular stage play, becomes the center of world altering events when a children's science ceremony is visited by a UFO.

Length 1 hour, 45 minutes

Release Date June 16, 2023 (Limited Release)

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution Focus Features

Directing Wes Anderson

Writing Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Composition Alexandre Desplat

Starring Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum

Writer/director Wes Anderson has become ridiculously talented at creating the exact kind of film he is known for making. In the past five years, he’s released three successful films, and that is accounting for two years of pandemic lockdown. Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch, and Astroid City are all coming out within short order of one another, reflecting a director at the height of his creative powers and abilities, demonstrating he’s able to turn out a masterpiece and another film just a year and a half later.

Wes Anderson will eventually come to be known as one of the great modern filmmakers if he hasn’t already. His movies were great from his initial successes with Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, but time has only given him more range, maturity, and opportunities to perfect his voice as a filmmaker and allow him to succeed, pushing out semi-regular masterpieces like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The French Dispatch.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some light cartoonish violence but nothing graphic.
Language/Crude Humor: Brief language including b**** and h***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters are frequently smoking and drinking throughout the film. There is a soda machine that makes cocktail drinks.
Sexual Content: A female character is briefly depicted with full frontal nudity for a few moments, and is later implied to have had sex offscreen.
Spiritual Content: One of the lead characters self-identifies as an Episcopalian while his son-in-law is an atheist, and his three granddaughters morbidly (as a joke) pretend like they are monsters or witches.
Other Negative Content: Discussions of confusion, uncertainty, sexual impropriety, and atheism.
Positive Content: Themes of family, truth, and connecting to others.

Review

It is not terribly surprising that Wes Anderson’s newest film Astroid City is being received with a mixed reception. Not all of Anderson’s films are great. Several of his films strive for greater depth and profundity and find themselves lost. Curiously, this film seems to be bringing out some fairly inverse reactions. Some viewers are looking at the film as cold, indulgent, elitist, and unfocused, while others like filmmaker Paul Schrader are declaring it one of his best films.

Anyone who has seen a Wes Anderson film already largely knows what to expect, from his whimsical dollhouse aesthetic to his preoccupation with sad, lonely upper-class characters, to his fascination with Americana and huge celebrity-laden casts. Aesthetics and comedy are always fully on point for Asteroid City as they are for his entire filmography.

The film borrows a similar framing device used in The Grand Budapest Hotel, introducing the story as a television broadcast of a popular stage play that is being put on by a group of eclectic actors and writers. The story-within-the-story follows the fictional location of Asteroid City, Nevada, a very small desert town with only a few dozen residents that plays home to an asteroid crater tourist attraction, an astronomy lab, and a local real-estate investment scam.

This small town becomes the stage for a youth astronomy convention that draws a large and strange cast of brilliant young children and their relatives, chief among them being war photojournalist Augie Steenbeck. His wife has just passed away and he is using the occasion of the convention to move his four children to live with their WASPy Episcopalian grandfather but is interrupted when his car breaks down and he is forced to admit the painful truth to his children that their mother has died.

The entire convention finds itself thrown into chaos when what should be an otherwise unnoteworthy awards ceremony is interrupted by a UFO visitation that throws the convention into chaos, causing the U.S. government to lockdown and quarantine the small town, and leaving every character with more questions than answers.

Asteroid City is one of the few Wes Anderson movies that can be said to be a full-fledged genre film, if only technically. The movie is very much homaging 1950s techno-futurism, space race imagery, UFO hysteria, and indulging many of the core aesthetics and images that make that time period popular. There is a government conspiracy and cover-up, laser weapons, atomic bomb tests, and a flying saucer. Beyond that though, the movie does a good job of exploring some of the same existential questions of the genre, asking questions like “Why are we here?” and “Can we ever truly understand the world we live in?”

The film is nowhere near as bleak as one should expect from a Wes Anderson film. It is still very whimsical and funny, portraying its strange events with a level of sarcasm and artificiality that avoids the bleak underpinnings of some of its themes.

From the outset though, the film does a good job of outlining this theme through the Steenbeck family and their reactions to the events of the film. One of the first questions Augie’s father-in-law asks him is if his grandchildren are still Episcopalian, and by the end of the film he no longer cares that they’ve all either become atheists or self-proclaimed five-year-old witches. The chaos and questioning that the traumas of loss and uncertainty create for these characters just bring sadness and uncertainty to their lives.

This emotion, as is usual in an Anderson movie, contrasts heavily with the ornate and organized dollhouse aesthetic approach to the film. As Vulture reviewer Bilge Ebiri notes, “There’s a point to all this indulgence. Anderson’s obsessively constructed dioramas explore the very human need to organize, quantify, and control our lives in the face of the unexpected and the uncertain … Asteroid City might be the purest expression of this dynamic because it’s about the unknown in all its forms.”

Wes Anderson films are always about the emotions that bleed through the ornate designs and careful framing, the way a character’s emotionless reaction speaks more than anything they could say as they bury their true emotions between their quirky melodramatic reactions. Just as Grand Budapest Hotel is simultaneously a movie about our nostalgia for the past and the way we bury pain and trauma beneath layers of narratives and memories, Asteroid City captures the ways that being lost in the world creates confusion and loneliness.

Positives

+ Very strong script
+ Contemplative and sharp themes
+ Great performances
+ Great comedy and dialogue

Negatives

- Somewhat alienating tone and story
- Somewhat unfulfilling thematic conclusions

The Bottom Line

Asteroid City is not one of Wes Anderson's masterpieces, but it lives up to all its expectations and delivers upon a funny, contemplative story about uncertainty in life and people connecting in spite of life's circumstances.

 

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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