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Asteroid City ★★★★



Directed: Wes Anderson

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Bryan Cranston, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jake Ryan

Released: 23rd June 2023 (UK cinemas)

Asteroid City is unlikely to convert Wes Anderson sceptics: his 11th feature film is perhaps his oddest yet, with a similar singularity to the likes of Moonrise Kingdom in how quietly composed and dryly delivered it is. There is a bizarreness in Asteroid City’s execution that might at first glance be misconstrued as cold, but Anderson’s latest is far from it. In fact, Asteroid City is one of his most complex, contemplative and emotionally resonant films ever, and certainly his best since The Grand Budapest Hotel. Unlikely to win over anyone who dislikes Anderson’s quirks, yes, but a triumphant result for those who adore this modern-day auteur’s work.

After alien contact in an American desert town named Asteroid City, a large group of people become quarantined together. Even by Anderson’s standards, it’s a mammoth ensemble, one led by Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson and with notable support from, but not limited to, Jake Ryan, Jeffrey Wright and Steve Carrell. The setting becomes a stylised purgatory-of-sorts for these characters, a vividly drawn temporary holding area where characters ponder and reflect on themselves and the wider universe. The titular town of Asteroid City seems to be the perfect playground for Anderson to let loose his stylistic yearnings.

The story we follow is a reimagining of a play, with this context set up by Bryan Cranston on narration duties, reappearing throughout with amusing scenes that bookmark each act of Asteroid City. The story within a story concept is enhanced further by Edward Norton’s Conrad Earp, a legendary playwright whose creative process of writing the play ‘Asteroid City’ is charted and dramatised. Anderson isn’t new to this layered concept – he’s done it in The Grand Budapest Hotel – but in Asteroid City, it takes on new depth and meaning, allowing for great expansion and detailed exploration of the characters.

Asteroid City has all the wonderful markings of an Anderson film: a twinkling original score by Alexandre Desplat; refined camerawork and smooth pans; strong colour saturation; a stunning amalgamation of large set builds, stop motion and live action; a droll, dry wit. The set and production design of Asteroid City, in particular, sings with an intense thoughtfulness, perfectly capturing the retro feel of 1950s Americana. The attention to detail is staggering. But what enhances Asteroid City further is its emotional depth and existential musings.

We find out that Schwartzman’s Augie Steenbeck is a recent widow and now the sole carer of his four children. He is unable to face the loss of his wife, even keeping it hidden from his children for three weeks. Schwartzman, a regular in Anderson’s films but here in his largest role since Rushmore in 1998, comes into his element here, a glorious co-lead whose sad, drooping face and mumbling demeanour reflect one man’s mental and physical state creaking under the unimaginable weight of grief. These notions of loss and self-reflection are explored further in an equally terrific Johansson, playing an actress named Midge Campbell who becomes close with Augie.

The Junior Stargazer Convention taking place in Asteroid City and the subsequent alien landing (a highlight of the film) allow Anderson to explore these notions of suffering further, as he utilises the sci-fi foundations to place these feelings in the context of the vast universe. Do these philosophical musings always feel tight enough? No, and Anderson is occasionally guilty of spelling them out too obviously for the audience, but the searching, enlightening delivery of these existential concepts still truly resonates.

Such is the depth of Asteroid City, multiple viewings will only serve to reward the viewer, and these rewatches won’t just be for the gorgeous visuals and their minute details. Asteroid City feels like an inadvertent answer to recent TikToks and AI-created clips that reduce Anderson’s style to mere whimsy and simplistic, symmetrical visuals. Anderson’s latest breathes life into his filmography again, utilising the same wit and odd melancholia of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest whilst also moving away from the anthological coldness of The French Dispatch. The result is nothing not only breathtaking but deeply arresting too.

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