Heartache, alien sightings and quarantine only amount to Close Encounters of the Quirky and Exasperating Kind.
A 1950s black-and-white television broadcast of “a new play created for the American stage” ushers the viewer into the latest Wes Anderson joint.
Our Rod Serling-like host (Bryan Cranston) talks of the Three-Act “fanciful telling” and introduces us to the next narrative layer about a photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his four children, who arrive in the desert town of Asteroid City – home to 87 people. The family (including delightfully sour father-in-law Tom Hanks) mourns the loss of the matriarch and is in town for precocious Rushmore -esque son Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan) to present his latest invention at the Junior Stargazer festival. The astronomy convention features scientists (Tilda Swinton), military personnel (Jeffrey Wright) and movie stars (Scarlett Johansson), and will soon be disrupted by a world-changing event (the UFO is in the trailers, so no spoiler here), followed by quarantine protocol Scrimmage Plan X which keeps everyone stuck in the remote location of First Contact.
It almost goes without saying at this point that if you're not already on board with Wes Anderson, you won't be converted by the next one. Anderson has become a genre at this point. From AI approximations to TikTok pastiches via ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ books, the filmmaker’s ornamental eccentricities and signature visual style are culturally enshrined; Wes does what Wes does, and his films can’t be dismissed as anything but meticulously and painstakingly crafted confectionaries. No one is expecting him to suddenly pivot and go out in a blaze of cinéma verité for his next project.
What Wes is missing, however, is the surprise factor, and it’s frustrating to what extent Asteroid City feels like that Family Guy parody about a playwright desperately trying to get his latest creation onto the stage, culminating in the review “Confusing, but not terrible.”
There you have it in a nutshell. Asteroid City is not terrible because it’s mid-tier Wes that doesn’t trouble the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel – arguably his finest work to date. As for the confusing part, that comes with the overstuffed script, courtesy of Anderson and Roman Coppola. The omnipresent film-within-a-film scaffolding feels like a complicated indulgence that doesn’t justify its existence like it did in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The remote and quarantined desert town was the perfect setup to get to know the million more characters (Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber, Matt Dillon, Rupert Friend, Steve Carrell) and get to properly know Anderson’s catastrophically wounded people who can't express their pain - a treasured family-in-crisis hallmark which he has aced in the past. However, the master of all things symmetrical only has style on the mind; he seems hellbent on keeping his audience at bay with a needless Matryoshka Doll framing device that wastes Margot Robbie, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody and Hong Chau in glorified cameos, kills any sense of intimacy, and yields no payoff. Remove it and there’s the possibility of emotional engagement and enough to go on about our place in the universe and how you should “use your grief” and “trust your curiosity”; keep it in so prevalently, and it's Close Encounters of the Quirky and Exasperating Kind.
Say what you will about the uneven The French Dispatch, but Anderson’s penultimate film feels less unfocused in retrospect. At least it allowed the viewer to fully bathe in 1960s France and took the time for an emotional payoff. Asteroid City doesn’t trouble itself with such things.
Wesheads will rightly marvel at the impressive trademark aesthetics on show, and that meek extra-terrestrial cameo is a moment of true magic. But when magic is wasted on cramming in as many players as possible in an admittedly impressive casting coup, all you’re left with is a shallow, alien-ating and cloying movie that’s a little too pleased with itself.
"You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep," we're repeatedly told. After seeing Asteroid City, we may not bother waking up for the next one.
Asteroid City premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is out in cinemas on 23 June.