Aug 16, 2023
Asteroid City is a fun science fiction story with dark and melancholic overtones
Acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson returns in a grand fashion with his latest offering, Asteroid City. After the fair-to-middling Isle of Dogs (2018) and The French Dispatch (2021), Anderson has found his verve once again with Asteroid City. The film is his first foray into the realm of science-fiction and while it contains all of his trademark idiosyncrasies and quirks, it is also one of his most melancholic efforts. Asteroid City is, without a doubt, a fine addition to the Wes Anderson canon.
Wes Anderson exploded onto the scene with 1996’s Bottle Rocket and followed it up two years later with Rushmore (1998) before achieving mainstream recognition with 2001’s superlative The Royal Tenenbaums. This film earned Anderson his first Oscar nomination and remains a favorite among fans. Three years later, Anderson delivered the divisive The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. While a commercial success, the film received mixed reviews from critics. After 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson stretched his creative muscles on 2009’s classic stop-motion feature The Fantastic Mister Fox. Later films of Anderson’s have included Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and the Oscar-nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
After Budapest, Anderson entered something of a creative lull. Isle of Dogs attempted to recreate the magic of Fantastic Mister Fox, and while an entertaining movie, it fell flat; the same can be said of 2020’s The French Dispatch, which saw Anderson stuck in a holding pattern. However, Asteroid City breaks this cycle and reasserts the formalist director as one of America’s greatest living filmmakers.
Asteroid City can be best described as a “play within a movie.” The play, written by playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) is about a group of children attending an astronomy convention in the town of Asteroid City. 3000 years prior, a giant asteroid hit the area, leaving behind a small fragment. Set in an alternate 1955, the convention is rocked when an alien steals the meteor fragment, leading to a government cover-up, which fails when the same youths who came for the astronomy convention help expose what is going on in Asteroid City.
Meanwhile, interspersed throughout are stories of the play’s actors and crew and how their lives outside of the play start bleeding into it.
If this sounds like an incredibly dark premise for a Wes Anderson movie, it is. However, Anderson employs his trademark style to soften the edges of the narrative. The kids attending the astronomy convention are typical, precocious Anderson youths, who in some ways are hipper to the world around them than their parents. They do not rely on a major news outlet such as The New York Times to get the story out, instead going with one of the kids’ school newspapers. Likewise, while the military is doing something morally questionable, they are depicted as buffoonish and, in the case of General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), purely unhinged, spouting off seemingly random babble during a speech.
Asteroid City does not just mine its drama from politics and conspiracy theories—there is a very real human element present in the story. Perhaps no one character better embodies this than photographer Augie Steenbeck, played by Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman. Schwartzman has been in many of Anderson’s movies, and here the director gets what might be one of Schwartzman’s best performances. Augie has been a distant father to his children, and when their mother dies, he finds himself suddenly saddled with four kids and no real clue as to what he is doing. Augie bonds with actress Midge Campbell, played by Scarlett Johansson, but this relationship brings no real solace. Augie is truly alone, and Schwartzman perfectly captures his melancholic nature.
Schwartzman is joined by a host of stars from Anderson’s seemingly growing stable of actors. Wes Anderson’s movies are always huge ensemble pieces, and Asteroid City is no different. Anderson regulars Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, and Adrien Brody are joined by several newcomers to Anderson’s world, including Maya Hawke, Tom Hanks, Bryan Cranston, Steve Carrell, Stephen Park, and Scarlett Johansson. Johansson in particular stands out as the aforementioned Midge Campbell; as Midge, Johansson channels Marilyn Monroe, right down to her voice and mannerisms.
Science fiction is new ground for Anderson, and here he manages to employ tropes of the genre to tell a great story. The movie is steeped in the UFO lore of the 1950s, and Anderson successfully recreates this era, giving viewers an idealized version of 1955, with jet packs and disintegrator rays. Asteroid City downplays the Cold War paranoia that gripped the United States at the time, opting instead to focus more on the political than the personal.
Now, 27 years into his career, Wes Anderson has firmly established himself as an American filmmaking institution. He has a distinct style unlike any other director working in America, and in Asteroid City he uses his trademark style to tell a fun science fiction story with dark and melancholic overtones.
Asteroid City is currently available to stream exclusively on Peacock and to rent or buy on Video On Demand and Apple Movies.
Shaun Corley is an East Coast pop culture enthusiast who loves to write about everything entertainment. A big, important Screen Rant writer, Shaun has many leather-bound books, but they're far outnumbered by comic books and the smell of rich mahogany lingering in the air.