Asteroid City


‘…cute yet frustratingly remote…’

‘Everything’s connected but nothing works’ mutters Matt Dillon’s taciturn car-mechanic in Wes Anderson’s latest all-star feature-film diorama fantasia extravaganza. Having been a fan of Anderson’s early films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic), it’s something of a bind to have to admit that while the writer/director’s star has continued to shine, he’s not made anything so involving in the last decade. That’s not stopped Anderson from being prolific, it’s just that recent entries Isle of Dogs and The French Dispatch are probably the least engaging films that he’s made yet. Yet cineaste Paul Schrader described Asteroid City as ‘the most Wes Anderson film that Wes Anderson ever made. He has distilled his design-driven anti-empathy film style to its essence. It’s hard to find a comparable film. The one that comes to mind is Last Year at Marienbad. I’m heartened that it opened so well, though not quite sure why.”

Those who dream of nothing but design-driven anti-empathy will be confronted by a series of vaguely connected vignettes centred about a family whose car breaks down in Asteroid City, where a convention of junior star-gazers is about to take place. Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) end up quarantined in the tiny backwater when they photograph a visiting alien when it arrives to pick up the space debris left behind on a previous visit; the alien looks like the Creature from the Black lagoon with anxiety issues. While cooped up with the City’s 87 inhabitants, there’s time to schmooze with movie star Midge (Scarlett Johansson), Augie’s father-in-law Zak (Tom Hanks), the usual Tilda Swinton headmistress-y cameo and other local attractions.

The cast list also includes Margot Robbie, Steve Carell, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liv Schreiber and Willem Dafoe, and the package might feel sweeter if they had more than a couple of lines each. Anderson’s bright compositions looks great as always, but further meta-textual confusion arrives in the form of intercutting the story with a play adaptation of the same events, presented by Bryan Cranston, which adds further quaintness but limits involvement. What do we want to see happen to these characters, and what’s at stake here?

Perhaps the adulation for Asteroid City reflects positivity about Anderson’s formula; at a time when the art-house and festival circuit has ceded its mojo to streaming, at least punters actually turned out for this, making it one of the few speciality circuit films to connect. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s original and visually inventive, and wrapped up in a package of famous names and faces; all that seems to be an attractive package for audiences. But what does Asteroid City mean, if anything? In his earlier films, Anderson seemed willing to take on issues of loss, bereavement and mortality, but lately his films just feel cute yet frustratingly remote. Maybe that’s the point of ‘design-driven, anti-empathy films’, but assembling this kind of personable cast really just raises hopes that the next Anderson film might be a return to form, rather than deliberately messing with our expectations.

Thanks to Universal UK for big-screen access, Asteroid City is out now in the US and from June 23rd in the UK.


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  1. That’s an excellent review, so you’ve picked up the right quote : The whole universe of Wes Anderson is well in place and yet nothing really works. The pretty dollhouse is a mechanism that runs empty, devitalized and sinister. As if the gloom had finally stifled any trace of emotion. Difficult to come out satisfied.

    • I totally get, with that cast and trailer, why people are keen to see this, but coming out the other side, there doesn’t seem to be much to think about. It’s not boring, but it doesn’t tick many of the boxes of a real entertainment. Frustrating, because the promise is there…

  2. Is Wes related to Paul?
    Because if so, there’s a chance the alien might be a demon that tries to kill people. And I would consider watching that.

  3. I’m pretty sure I’ll grab the DVD off the shelf when the library gets it in, but the trailer does look like another trip to Anderson’s cake shop.

    • Yup, and I’m always enthusiastic for Anderson, even if the movie is never quite what I hoped for…

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