No cinematic style is as eclectic, textural, and purely recognizable as that of Wes Anderson’s canon. From the dioramic, dollhouse-like production design; the sparklingly ornate graphic lettering; the acting so theatrical it plays out like a Western take on Kabuki; the layered story-within-a-story structure that pulsates with a singular flavour of whimsy, and, finally, who could forget the iconic symmetries, so sharp they cut through each frame like they’re butter. All these elements work together in beautiful synchronicity to create an experience that unfolds like a melancholic colour book. Yet, not all Wes Anderson movies are created equal. Entries like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Fantastic Mr. Fox not only deliver taut storytelling but maintain a soul underneath all the frippery.
And then there are films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which has undergone a critical re-evaluation in recent years) and The Darjeeling Limited. Movies that are visually dazzling but are so conceptually and structurally stretched thin, they elicit more groans than anything else. Asteroid City falls into this latter category with a greater thud than any of its predecessors, unearthing very little earned emotion with its meditation on the cosmos and humanity’s place in it. It’s very much Anderson’s weakest entry to date, woefully failing its painterly visuals and star-studded cast.
Set in a minuscule, southwest American desert town in the 1950s—that’s actually a setting for a stage play written by the legendary Conrad Earp (Edward Norton)— Asteroid City might just be Anderson’s most intricate, detailed, and obsessively realized piece of world-building. It’s hard not to revel in the over-stylized, kitsch aesthetic from the moment the audience’s train first enters town. The humble 50s diner, shabby one-pump gas station, and giant meteorite crater that doubles as a tourist attraction are a few of the town’s many sites that exude an otherworldly charm. Hypnotizing viewers with its kaleidoscopic, technicolor glory. It’s all backdropped by the type of vibrant mesas that John Ford so boldly immortalized during that very same period, with a heavy sprinkling of atomic mushroom clouds that go off in the distance due to government testing.
The gorgeous trappings are also uniquely hilarious, home to some great gags like an endless array of vending machines which includes one that sells off tiny plots of seemingly worthless land and sporadic, bullet-ridden car chases that occasionally zip through the town’s main strip. Not to mention a comical, stop-motion rendition of an alien that visits the community’s denizens one fateful night.
For as much as Asteroid City is visually and texturally rich, the scenes and moments that populate it are not. Constantly keeping viewers at an arm’s length due to its stagy, emptily winking dialogue, which renders the characters more like trite caricatures, and confused meta-narrative structure that bites off more than it can chew.
Each actor of its impossibly stacked cast— which includes Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Adrien Brody, Steve Carrell, and Maya Hawke to name a few—not only star as their respective characters in the dirt-laced town but also as stage actors at the same time, who are “playing” these very same roles on Broadway in a black-and-white teleplay called “Asteroid City”, narrated by The Host (Bryan Cranston).
It’s a deeply confounding concoction that results in both narrative streams diluting each other, zapping any semblance of dramatic heft with each cutaway. As a result, it feels like two different movies forcefully amalgamated into one incongruous whole, rendering its existential meditation on grief emotionally inert and hollow— nowhere as near as tear-inducing as it thinks it is.
An effect that reaches its peak during the climax, where Shwartzman’s Augie Steenbeck, a recently widowed war photographer who gets trapped in town with his four kids after his car breaks down, halts the scene to discuss the character’s motivations with the play’s director, Schubert Green (Brody). Asteroid City is flush with baffling moments like these, which robs both the characters and narrative of any growth and momentum, manifesting as nothing more than a bland retread of Anderson’s greatest hits. The most egregious of which is the characterization of Steenbeck’s son, the “brainiac” Woodrow (Jake Ryan), who amounts to nothing more than a flat imitation of Max in Rushmore.
Its series of disjointed conversations and narrative beats amount to little more than a one-note take on existentialism, loss, and retro-Americana. Though it’s beautiful to behold, Asteroid City quickly takes on diminishing returns after its sparkling opening. A sci-fi, meta-experiment that hopes to garner love but will have to cope with mere admiration. A true disappointment from one of cinema’s most talented voices.