THE STORY – World-changing events spectacularly disrupt the itinerary of a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention in an American desert town circa 1955
THE CAST – 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
THE TEAM – Wes Anderson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
“You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”
After more than 25 years, Wes Anderson has consistently delighted, surprised, and entertained his fanbase while remaining true to himself regarding how his incomparable cinematic style tells his stories. Many would argue his best film is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences felt so as well as they bestowed Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations to Anderson. Well, now, he may have to make room for such accolades yet again as “Asteroid City” emerges as one of his very best films to date. Asking the biggest questions of his career and breaking fresh ground on how to thematically present his latest story to the world, Anderson creatively showcases the same mature growth he displayed with his 2014 film by constructing a near-perfect blend of his distinguishable style with more grounded and mature character work that stretches beyond this planet and reaches for the stars.
It’s September 1955 in a fictional American desert town called “Asteroid City” (named for an asteroid that fell from the stars, landed in the town, and remains there till this day). Photographer and recent widower Augie Steenbeck’s (Jason Schwartzman) car has broken down while traveling with his four children, three adorable little girls, and his brilliant “brainiac” son Woodrow (“Eighth Grade’s” Jake Ryan). While an auto-mechanic (Matt Dillion) attempts to fix the car, Augie calls his father-in-law (Tom Hanks) to pick up the kids. Augie hasn’t told his children yet about the passing of their mother, which occurred three weeks ago. While they wait, they meet an ensemble of vastly different characters, including a teacher with a group of students on a trip (Maya Hawke), a dramatic actress sporting a fake black eye (Scarlett Johansson), and the concierge of the hotel in the area (Steve Carell) among many others. When the site’s Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) gets ready to present the random group of people with a special showcase of an eclipse that happens only every 57 years, an alien from outer space arrives and inexplicably takes the asteroid from Asteroid City. After the celestial event occurs, the United States Military & Science Research & Experimentation Division (led by Jeffrey Wright) arrives to quarantine the group of strangers, leaving them the time to ask grand questions such as “Why did the alien take the asteroid? Where did it go? What does all of this mean?” as new relationships are formed, and old broken ones are reformed for the Steenbeck’s as they process their grief. At the same time, “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston announces himself as the narrator of the fictitious story early on via. a series of 4:3 black and white segments (the movie is also broken up into three different acts with an epilogue), revealing even more thematic layers to this cosmic, hilarious and emotional story.
“Asteroid City” retains many of Anderson’s cinematic trademarks. There are split screens, camera pans, dolly shots, model work (a miniature model train travels to Asteroid City over the opening credits), stop-motion animation (how the alien is presented), and his usual cast of favorite actors showing up for bit parts (such as Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Tony Revolori). The pastel-colored production design deliberately looks like staged, picture-esque postcards, while Robert Yeoman’s photography remains as exquisite as ever. Another frequent collaborator, composer Alexandre Desplat, delivers a playfully simple but sometimes awe-inspiring score to match the film’s astral ambitions. While no one would ever question Anderson’s technical abilities, his work as of late has been perceived as dramatically inert, and this is where “Asteroid City” genuinely succeeds.
As the atomic bomb tests are being conducted in the distance, various characters (particularly the Steenbeck’s, who are the heart of the film) contemplate life’s greatest mysteries (Liev Schreiber’s character’s son is constantly daring to question everything), including what’s our place within the universe? How do we find truth in art, meaning in life, etc? It’s very heady stuff for Anderson, but by not emphasizing his bag of directorial tricks but instead placing the focus on the screenplay’s themes through the various characters, it allows for a far greater connection with the material.
As the father struggling to process his grief over his deceased wife, Jason Schwartzman is the large ensemble’s MVP. Opinions on that will surely differ as there are so many actors to choose from. Jeffrey Wright is so well-suited to rattle off Anderson’s dialogue with a poise that it’s a delight that the film could’ve used more of. Many will get a kick out of Edward Norton’s character (I won’t reveal who he plays or what his function is as it would reveal too many direct spoilers about an additional layer to “Asteroid City,” which makes it as great as it is). Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks; does anything more need to be said? And Scarlett Johansson garners some of the film’s biggest laughs as a self-serious dramatic actress who takes her art too far on more than a few occasions. Each performer, whether they’re an Anderson newbie (Margot Robbie only shows up for one scene, but an important one, toward the end) or veteran (Jeff Goldblum has a cameo with one line), is all synced to the distinctive director’s rhythm and tone to hit the comedic and emotional beats equally.
While many will argue over their favorite Wes Anderson film, and indeed there will be those who disagree entirely with the thoughts written above, like other reputable filmmakers with such a passionate following, it’s ok for opinions on his work to be split. Those who have enjoyed the director’s latest offerings may find “Asteroid City” to be too on the nose with its themes and a touch sentimental in how it goes about exploring them. But as “Asteroid City” states at a certain point, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand; just keep telling the story.” And tell the story Wes Anderson does as he explores more profound territory than ever before while retaining his unique voice in directing actors and assembling dazzling visuals to aid his storytelling. It marks yet another unexpected but welcome step forward for a director who has already carved out a particular spot for himself in film history.