Stellar Seduction: Wes Anderson’s Enchanting Asteroid City

Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hong Chau, Hope Davis, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum
Cert: 12A
Running time: 105 mins

Just when you think a Wes Anderson movie couldn’t possibly be any more of a Wes Anderson movie – as was the case with the note-perfect magazine-like structure of The French Dispatch – he goes and does it again, only more so. Asteroid City, the idiosyncratic writer-director’s latest film, is admittedly unlikely to win over anyone who’s still sitting on the Wes Anderson fence, but fans of his films are in for an absolute treat. It’s also, quietly, his most romantic movie to date.

Perhaps the biggest surprise – at least if you’ve only seen the trailer – is the film’s framing device. Anderson’s films are often accused of having a certain amount of theatricality to them, and here it turns out we’re literally watching a play. As the film begins, in black and white, a TV host (Bryan Cranston) explains that we’re watching a televised production of Asteroid City, a play by celebrated playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), and we’re quickly introduced to the various cast members who will be playing the parts, so all the real-life actors are also playing fictional actors, in addition to their roles in the play.

The play itself unfolds in three acts, in colour, with intermitent title cards announcing scene numbers and so on. It’s set in 1955, in a remote desert town called Asteroid City (population 87), so named because a meteorite left a large crater there, 3,000 years ago. It’s also the site of the annual Junior Stargazers convention, so a group of child geniuses arrive with their families, in order to take part. These include: recent widower and war photographer Auggie Steinbeck (Jason Schwartzman), who hasn’t yet told his four children – including child genius Woodrow (Jake Ryan) – that their mother has died; world-weary movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her brainy daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards); and school teacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke), along with her busload of young children.

Also in town are Auggie’s father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), who arrives to help out after Auggie’s car breaks down; the helpful motel manager (Steve Carell), the local mechanic (Matt Dillon), local space scientist Dr Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), the host of the Junior Stargazer competition. However, the ceremony doesn’t quite go according to plan and a decidedly unexpected incident results in everyone being put in quarantine and having to stay an extra week, by Presidential decree.

As is always the case with Wes Anderson movies, the production design is utterly gorgeous throughout, with striking pastel colours, flimsy-looking sets and font designs that are practially fetishistic. As such, every frame is packed with tiny details and there is great pleasure to be had in scrutinising every one of them, ensuring that the film will greatly reward multiple viewings.

The performances are delightful throughout, with each actor committing whole-heartedly to Anderson’s signature near-deadpan style. Schwartzman, in particular, delivers his best Wes Anderson performance since Rushmore – it’s his grief and his relationship with Johansson’s character (conducted through and framed by the facing windows of their motel rooms) that forms the film’s beating heart, given an extra twist because Jones Hall (the actor playing Auggie) doesn’t understand the play he’s in.

Similarly, Johansson and Hanks (in what would normally be the Bill Murray role) prove welcome additions to Anderson’s regular repertory cast, while the child actors are superb – the scenes of the child geniuses all bonding are one of several highlights. The cast may be sprawling, but Anderson ensures that every cast member gets a moment to shine, even the likes of Hong Chau, Margot Robbie and Jeff Goldblum, who each get a single scene (or a line, in Goldblum’s case).

The humour is very much in the traditional Anderson style, with wonderful deadpan line readings and a wealth of great visual gags. There are a number of lovely running gags too, from everyone sighing “Midge Campbell”, whenever anyone says the character’s name, to repeated appearances from a roadrunner.

The multi-layered script explores several compelling themes, from the nature of grief and loss to the question of whether God exists, to ideas of truth and humanity in theatre. It’s also, in an almost perfectly understated way, Anderson’s most romantic film to date, with three separate love stories unfolding simultaneously, one of them almost in the margins of the movie. To that end, there’s a particular editing moment that is pure joy, and guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the most Anderson-averse audience member.

In short, this is one of Anderson’s most enjoyable films to date. It’s also one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it. Great soundtrack too, although that goes without saying.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Matthew Turner



  • Matthew Turner

    A lifelong film fanatic, Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971) is a London-based critic and author, as well as the co-host of Fatal Attractions, a podcast on erotic thrillers. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.