Asteroid City

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton and Margot Robbie
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 105 mins. Reviewed in Aug 2023
Reviewer: Peter W Sheehan
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Brief nudity

This sci-fi comedy-drama film tells the story of a Junior Stargazer convention in the US, which is disrupted by an alien from another planet.

A Space Cadet convention in the US brings together parents and students from across America for scientific enlightenment. The convention takes place in a fictional American town around 1955, and the town is completely surrounded by arid desert. The convention has been organised to appeal especially to Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets, and is spectacularly disrupted when it is visited by an alien who arrives by spaceship twice – once to take an asteroid back (maybe to home?), and once to return it. Those at the meeting have to contemplate how best to interact with aliens, who themselves don’t know how they should relate to humans.

Wes Anderson is famous for his heavily patterned, symmetrical imagery, and the surreal interactions among the characters he puts in his scenarios. He typically mixes adventure with fun, in a uniquely aesthetic way, and he uses deadpan dialogue totally idiosyncratically. Recent movies of his are the Isle of Dogs (2018), and The French Dispatch (2021). In this film, he works once more with his writing partner, Roman Coppola, as he did in Moonrise Kingdom (2012). This time, a large number of cast members are entirely new, including Hanks.

The film is a striking example of Anderson’s unique style. He uses his trademark deadpan dialogue, and he bathes Asteroid City and its quirky inhabitants in a golden glow. The film has a huge cast. Anderson wrote and produced the movie with a lot of help, but he singularly directs his films in a special way. When the film comes on, you know immediately, that you are watching a Wes Anderson movie. His films typically project studied, measured calmness interrupted by frantic action, and unusual happenings occur in black-and-white and in colour.

Anderson is a totally original story-teller. A number of directors legitimately earn the label “Auteur” and they all communicate distinctive styles of direction that use instantly recognisable cinematography, imagery, scripting, music, and art-production. Among them are Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, and Michael Haneke. A characteristic of all of them is that they guide their films in idiosyncratic ways: their narratives are distinctive, and they produce and direct their films vibrantly and aesthetically. This film is a perfect example of that pattern. It immediately partitions itself into acts and scenes, and there is a play within the film that has an epilogue.

Anderson’s movies are whimsical in style. They are meticulously designed and framed, and they vary their subject matter widely. This one is broad in scope, and takes a fanciful look at loneliness and emotional repression in a chaotic world that is searching for meaning. The desert town has to be quarantined after a possible invasion causes complete chaos. En route to the film’s conclusion, Anderson guides his movie to its end point in an absorbing, and tightly structured way. He presents viewers with an anticipated vision of what might lie ahead in the future, and he directs the characters that populate his movies with great imaginative flair. You may not know what is the meaning of his imagery, but its vibrancy and quirkiness linger strongly.

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