Director – Wes Anderson – 2023 – US – Cert. 12a – 104m
A stage play frames a tale of various characters in a 1950s US desert town, built on the site of an asteroid impact, which becomes the centre of a cover-up after an alien appears – out in UK cinemas on Friday, June 23rd
Iconoclast Anderson’s latest is being sold as one thing by its trailer, when it’s actually something else. And watching the film, that something else completely threw me. What we are being sold via the standard letterboxed movie framed image is, a 1950s family trapped in the town of Asteroid City, USA when their car irreparably breaks down, then the entire (not very large) population including visitors imprisoned there following an incident with an extra-terrestrial spaceship and an alien. The overall tone is of whimsy, but maybe there’s something unsettling and disturbing about it too.
Anderson’s movies have never been about photorealism as much as artifice, which is part of their undeniable charm. Perhaps that’s even more true of Asteroid City than most. The costumes, the production design, have gone for a very particular, stylized look. This is fifties American desert romanticised into pastel-shaded eye candy, and if all that were required of going to a movie were to sit down in your seat and soak up the scenery, then provided you’re not the type to insist on photo-representational accuracy, this would be a winner hands down. The setting is both fantastical and attractive.
Into this setting, Anderson introduces another of the large ensemble casts of which he is so fond. He starts with recently widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) taking his award-winning inventor son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to a Junior Stargazer ceremony with his three daughters along for the ride when his car breaks down which the local mechanic (Matt Dillon) is unable to fix. Augie has never really got on with father-in-law (Tom Hanks). Also recently arrived is movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) whose daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards) is another inventor in town for the ceremony. Their hosts for the ceremony are are five-star general Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) and astronomer Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton).
Then an alien turns up and steals the town’s asteroid and the narrative lurches into cover-up territory as the town is plunged into lockdown…
As hinted earlier, this is not the film. Because the film doesn’t start off there but rather very differently, in an equally lavishly photographed black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio frame story introduced by a visible host (Bryan Cranston) explaining that a playwright named Conrad Earp (Ed Norton) has created a play, which is the Asteroid City we’re about to see, and he introduces the various characters as they individually wait backstage with their scripts. This element is completely omitted from the trailer and its inclusion turns the whole viewing experience of viewing this feature film into something other than you might have expected from watching that trailer.
Much about Asteroid City will be familiar to admirers of the Anderson canon – the studiously composed framing and blocking so that all action seems to happen in a plane perpendicular to the camera, distinctive and arresting production design, a story featuring a collection of quirky characters, and a star-studded ensemble cast of actors who just can’t wait to work (or work again) with Wes Anderson.
However, the script (written with frequent Anderson collaborator Roman Coppola) would be much more pleasant to read at your own pace than it is to watch where the pacing is locked into place by dint of being a movie which plays in a cinema at its own, pre-ordained pace. Erudite and witty lines of dialogue come at you too fast to take in, and it becomes hard to keep up after the first twenty or so minutes. The black and white play frame story undermines the whole thing still further. Die hard admirers may be in Anderson heaven, however non-acolytes may find the whole thing leaves them cold.
Asteroid City is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, June 23rd.