Going to the desert for a science fair doesn't sound like my kind of holiday, but with Wes Anderson's charm I can endure the heat.
When you enter the theatre and take your seat for a Wes Anderson movie, you know what you're getting. Despite those awful AI-generated movies in "Wes Anderson's style" being vast oversimplifications, they do contain a modicum of truth in the fact that Anderson's films are known for standing amount among the majority of movies that you'll see today. Even among other directors known for distinct styles, Anderson's cinematography, use of colour and incredibly quirky dialogue are features so integral and unique that his films would in no way be the same without them.
Asteroid City features all of the above and more, sending us to the titular town just in time to see the results of the most extreme science fair in all of America, by the looks of things. A death ray, jetpack, and more incredible devices have all been created by kids in their early to mid teens in the 1950s. And yet, Asteroid City focuses on so much more than just this one event. This is the reason our characters are brought together, but what binds them throughout the course of the runtime goes beyond that. Grief, love, and of course the UFO that arrives early on all serve to mould this odd and strange community that are made more of circumstance than anything else.
While there may not have been any top billing in the call sheet for Asteroid City's filming, our leads are Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson, both of whom give stellar performances. Schwartzman especially captivates in a way I've not seen before from the actor, giving the film an central figure that is both distant and readable, a character that can confuse at times and yet remains extremely real and often likeable. As usual, Anderson makes great use of his stacked cast, with many stand-out side characters that all work incredibly well together. You're left wanting more of each of them rather than feeling as if Asteroid City itself becomes overpopulated. Steve Carrell's motel manager was a personal favourite.
This is an ad:
Anderson's use of colour in Asteroid City gives the fake miniature town such a vibrant and lively atmosphere that contrasts beautifully with the otherwise arid desert landscape. Everything from the characters' clothing to the set design whisks you away to a much brighter and more hopeful world than our own. Asteroid City remains a mostly light film, even with some heavier material to deal with, such as the death of Schwartzman's character's wife, something that he avoids telling his children about almost as if he also does not want to inform the audience, to give them an otherwise jolly trip through the desert. Anderson's signature comedy shines brightly in Asteroid City, and had a packed theatre laughing every few minutes.
If you're looking to go into Asteroid City completely blind, I'd recommend this is where you end your reading of this review. Know that Asteroid City is some of Anderson's best work, and shows the director taking on new and bold challenges even while maintaining a consistently stellar quality. However, to discuss the film in its entirety, there must be some spoilers included in this review. You have been warned.
Asteroid City is not what I was expecting going in. As you'll see in the first minute, it is actually the story of a play called Asteroid City, of which we see in its entirety with the occasional switch to black-and-white where we're told more of the background of the play, its creators, and the actors who play the characters we see on-screen. This was a bit jarring at first, but it played wonderfully into the story that Asteroid City, which isn't really about the town, or the science fair, or even the alien, really. From jumping away from our vibrant world of colour every so often, Anderson can best tackle the bigger themes he wishes to deal with and to great effect. One scene in particular towards the end of the film sees Schwartzman's character leave the play, seeking clarity on the meaning of his character and Asteroid City as a whole. I won't spoil the outcome, but to me that scene alone was worth the price of the ticket.
This is an ad:
Asteroid City has you leaving the theatre asking more questions than you had when you came in. It is a film worthy of conversation, when so many movies leave our memories the moment we leave our seats. I did have some problems with its pacing, as due to the play format we have an intro card for each group of new scenes, which does somewhat spoil the experience and makes the structure of the movie rather predictable for the most part. However, overall Asteroid City shows that Wes Anderson can keep making great leaps forward, even if it's not his best-ever work.