Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Matt Dillon, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Jeffrey Wright, Jake Ryan, Aristou Meehan, Hope Davis, Bob Balaban, Tony Revolori, Grace Edwards, Margot Robbie, Jarvis Cocker, Stephen Park, Hong Chau, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Fisher Stevens, Rita Wilson.
Wes Anderson is an auteur whose career has spanned nearly three decades, and since his breakthrough film Bottle Rocket he has established his signature quirky and decidedly offbeat style and deadpan humour. His films are something of an acquired taste, but those attuned to his unique wavelength will certainly appreciate his latest cinematic offering.
Asteroid City is set in the 1950s and events take place against a backdrop of fear during the atomic age and McCarthy era paranoia. Situated in the middle of the Arizona desert, the titular town is home to a crater supposedly formed some thousands of years ago when a meteor crashed into the earth. The small Arizona town’s population is swelled when a group of sci-fi and UFO buffs descend on the titular city for a junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention. Atom bomb tests are being conducted in the far-off distance, and the occasional mushroom cloud can be seen rising above the desert.
Amongst the new arrivals are the recently widowed photojournalist Augie Steenbeck (Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman) who is accompanied by his nerdy science obsessed teenaged son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three young daughters who carry their mother’s ashes in a Tupperware container. They are on their way to visit their grandfather (Tom Hanks) when their car breaks down, temporarily stranding them in Asteroid City. They stay at the hotel run by the officious but decidedly quirky manager (Steve Carell). Also in attendance is Hollywood movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her precocious daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards). Also arriving is J J Kellogg (Liev Schreiber) with his energetic son Clifford (Aristou Meehan), who performs daredevil stunts.
But the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of a real-life UFO, causing all the visitors to be quarantined for several days. General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) is appointed by the President to oversee the quarantine. As they pass the time, the characters confront many personal issues and relationships.
What makes the film different though is the framing structure for the narrative which may seem clumsy and an unnecessary contrivance for many. An opening framing device features Bryan Cranston as the anonymous host of an anthology television series, who tells us the story of legendary playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and the creation of his latest play called Asteroid City. These framing scenes are shot in black and white and the boxy Academy ratio while the rest of the film unfolds in a hyper realistic, almost artificial style and a rich colour palette.
Anderson has a unique visual style, and the painted sets add an artificial quality to the material. The film features unique production design from Adam Stockhausen that gives it its distinctive look, and regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman bathes the sundrenched desert setting in bright pastels.
Asteroid City unfolds in Anderson’s typically whimsical style, full of droll and obtuse dialogue delivered in deadpan style and featuring a cast of eccentric characters brough to life by a superb ensemble cast, which also includes Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum (unrecogniseable as an alien), Matt Dillon as the town’s mechanic, Tilda Swinton as astronomer Dr Hickenlooper, and Margot Robbie in a brief cameo.
As scripted by Anderson and his regular collaborator Roman Coppola, Asteroid City is unfortunately a meandering collection of vignettes delivered in typically droll fashion with Anderson’s usual stilted dialogue. The film is also self-indulgent and at times self-referential. The film is obviously intended as a sort of homage to those sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s and it contains meta references to a number of other UFO films such as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
However, while Asteroid City is not one of Anderson’s best films (that would be The Grand Budapest Hotel) it will certainly appeal to those who are attuned to the filmmaker’s offbeat sensibilities.