Asteroid City review – style over substance, and drier than a desert
Wes Anderson's latest retro foray is visually inspired, but too many characters and a formal stiffness always keeps us at arm's length
There are countless critics currently in Cannes who will tell you that the new movie by Wes Anderson is excellent, one of his best in years – smart, humorous, visually dazzling and emotionally resonant. But what I saw felt more like something cooked up by a Wes Anderson AI prompt: Wes doing Wes, another safe and solid quirkfest, crippled by cold line readings and always keeping the viewer at arm's length. Wesheads will drink it down gleefully, of course. But if, like me, you have slowly fallen out of love with this filmmaker, Asteroid City will probably not be the movie to win you back.
For reasons I’m not sure ever really justify themselves, Asteroid City is confusingly framed as a play-within-a film-within-a-TV show (I think), introduced to us by Bryan Cranston as a 50s style television host, and presented as the work of playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton). We move quickly from boxy black-and-white to the vibrant, Looney Tunes-looking land of Asteroid City, another chocolate box dimension that doubles as a desert stronghold for stargazers and scientists. Enter Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) a war photographer mourning the recent loss of his wife, who has come to Asteroid City with his son and three daughters. There, he'll bond with jaded movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and butt heads with his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks).
Obviously, the movie's visuals take precedent, as Anderson finds an aesthetic middle ground that toes the line between his live-action works and his more recent forays into stop-motion animation. There’s a brilliant, Technicolour boldness to the vast, desert landscapes, but look closer and the “sets” might not be here at all – the stuff of CGI. Anderson leans further, too, into the face-on filmmaking style that has made him such a subject of parody, his camera more angular than ever, often moving from frame to frame with the precision of turning a Rubik's Cube. But it all contributes to an artificialness that further hinders the supposed emotional through-line, ostensibly about the ways in which we come apart and come together as we process grief.
Harder than ever to get behind, and also a problem with his last film, The French Dispatch, is the “cinema of cameo” approach. Anderson has increasingly relied on huge casts of very famous actors to populate his movies, some in very small parts (Jeff Goldblum, as an alien, sets a record here). But the novelty of having absolutely everyone in your movie has since worn off. Now it's a tactic that stifles character development because there is barely enough time for anyone to make an impact. And the cast-wide, deadpan approach to the actual acting also makes everyone interchangeable and, in fact, prevents them from showing us why they were hired in the first place. How about four or five well-written characters with substantial screen-time, à la Tenenbaums, instead of twenty-seven underwritten ones?
An encounter with a UFO initially feels like a path towards new territory here. But, no, it's still the same old Wes, we discover, another case of much too much (visually) and far too little (emotionally). Actually, to rally against all this is to rally against what so many people love about the filmmaker. For many, this will land as peak Anderson. And true, Asteroid City is packed with too much fine detail and artistic precision to write it off as a total failure. But for this writer, Anderson’s movies used to feel like more than mere confection – humour, warmth, and wit, where people felt like people and not just puppets in a cardboard theatre.
Asteroid City was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch