Asteroid City: Wes Anderson’s charming sci-fi caper is festooned with the markers of 1950s Americana

There’s a lot going on in Anderson’s American desert town drama – an ensemble cast, alien invaders, a play within a TV show within a film – but there’s so much to admire in this ambitious exercise in world building.

25 May 2023

By Nick Bradshaw

Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell in Asteroid City (2023)Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell in Asteroid City (2023) © Courtesy of Focus Features
Sight and Sound

A one-car pioneer town, somewhere in the parched wilds of the California-Nevada desert, in the fresh-faced post-war years of the expanding American empire, on the third rock from the sun. This remote out- post, and the few days we spend there with a ragtag group of visitors both scheduled and unscheduled, lend Wes Anderson’s latest world-rebuilding confection more dramatic unity than perhaps any of his previous ten cavorting cine-capers. It also sees the Houston-born filmmaker who has insistently followed his inclinations eastward – New York, New England, England, France, the Mediterranean, mittel-Europe, India, Japan – finally turning west: the film is festooned with markers of 1950s Americana, from freight trains, singing cowboys and saturated Technicolor to tract-home salesmen, atom-bomb tests and military-scientific sequestration. The name ‘Asteroid City’ may be a sci-fi come-on for this dreaming toehold in the desert, named after what a billboard promotes as the prize local “Arid Plains meteorite”, but the film precisely evokes that time when America’s frontier was moving from the West to the skies above.

All that said, there’s more: pressing on with the formal experimentation of Anderson’s last, magazine-inspired portmanteau movie, The French Dispatch (2021), Asteroid City couches its westernisms in the contemporaneous flavours of American east-coast theatre and television. In an occasional (black-and-white, Academy-ratio) framing device, Bryan Cranston plays the stentorian host of a high-culture TV show, bringing us behind-the-scenes glimpses of a new play from the pen of Edward Norton’s venerated Conrad Earp, directed by Adrien Brody’s suave Schubert Green. (Later there’s also some Actors Studio-type experimental group work, for which Anderson loosens his tripod and hits us with Dutch angles.)

Apparently the situational drama in the desert is the resulting televised play – although it looks more than anything like a Wes Anderson film, down to the lovingly demarcated act and scene intertitles – and in it Scarlett Johansson’s Mercedes Ford plays another actor, Midge Campbell, who herself is learning her lines opposite Jason Schwartzman’s Jones Hall as Augie Steenbeck, a newly widowed war photographer. What with Anderson’s chatter-box dialogue and the most aggressively dynamic camerawork yet by his perennial director of photography Robert Yeoman – daisy-chaining Anderson’s trademark flat, symmetrical set-ups with responsive tracking shots and whip pans – it’s a lot to take in on first viewing. But as ever, Anderson’s overarching scenario is secondary to the scene-by-scene pleasures of his comic-sketch style and variety-revue treatment of his starry ensemble cast.

Jason Schwartzman (Augie) and Tom Hanks (Stanley) in Asteroid City (2023)
Jason Schwartzman (Augie) and Tom Hanks (Stanley) in Asteroid City (2023)
© Courtesy of Focus Features

Breaking down in Asteroid City with a station wagon full of children and his late wife’s ashes in a tupperware pot bound for his father-in-law (Tom Hanks dressed in teal and tan golf-wear by Anderson’s regular costume designer Milena Canonero is something to see), Schwartzman’s Augie rents a roadside cabin from Steve Carrell’s chirpy realtor/proprietor. In the neighbouring cabin he and his bashful teen son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) take shines to Johansson’s Midge and her teen daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), one of a quintet of brainiac outcasts in town to be awarded for their outlandish inventions at a star- gazer/space cadet presentation. (Jeffrey Wright’s clip-tongued General Gibson and Tilda Swinton’s lab-coated Dr Hick- enlooper preside over the ceremonies.) Then, during a viewing of “astronomical ellipses”, they’re briefly joined by another, stop-motion interloper, presenting as something like one of Louis Feuillade’s silent bandits in a frog suit.

While the teenagers’ onsite escapades and brain games recall the intrigue of Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Augie and Midge, two adults passing time as they pass through, bring a countervailing deadpan melancholia, deflecting feelings of grief, abandonment and hapless parenting behind their professionalism. (Midge identifies them as “two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of our pain because… we don’t want to”; Augie, teeth clamped as ever on his pipe as if it will save him, responds: “Let’s change the subject.”) So the film, wrapping modernist questions of existentialism and artifice, alienation and isolation in Anderson’s arch, whimsical post-modernism, presses onwards, spinning out its formalist frolics for dear life. It closes with Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley singing the refrain earlier pitched as a mantra by the acting students: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

 ► Asteroid City arrives in UK cinemas 23 June. 

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