Asteroid City Review | A timely reminder of the frailties of style

Asteroid City is the most Andersonian Wes Anderson film, one that cements his status currently as a visual auteur above all else. It was an unconvincing, lackluster watch, it holds up as an epitome of the standard Wes Anderson picture if the story was something we didn't need to pay attention to.

Asteroid City is an appropriate culmination of the contemporary discourse via auteur Wes Anderson on the contentious artificial intelligence of style over substance

*This is a spoiler-free review. Really, this isn’t a movie you can effectively spoil.​

The Wes Anderson & A.I. discourse

Before I say anything about Wes Anderson’s latest feature Asteroid City, it would only make sense if you just step back for a second, and holistically consider his body of work’s contemporary relevance. Just for a little while.

And by such, I am of course referring to the ‘The Wes Anderson trend’; though we are slightly in the trend’s post-era, surely you’ve seen social media feeds inundated with pastiches—or I dare say parodies—of Wes Anderson’s distinctly appealing style. The quirky trend, including imitating his zealous use of bright, oversaturated colours manicured immaculately in toy-like diorama sets, are all portrayed as much as possible within an orthographic projection. A stern follower of the perfectionist school of aesthetics, symmetrical clarity is the expected presence within any given Wes Anderson-esque scene, where subsequently an ‘active’ element (a moving, haptic entity—a man walking from left to right of the frame for a very simple example) provides a live, sentient quality of unexpectedness, which disrupts the mise en scène.

So, that was an essential boiling down of what perceptibly constitutes the collective understanding of the Wes Anderson style. Oversimplistic? Yes! Yes of course. But when put that way, it obviously elucidates how The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)—which seems to be Wes Anderson’s crowning achievement and the barometer for which all his other films are measured—wasn’t so critically acclaimed just based on the film’s intricate set designs, its entertaining cinematography, nor its memorable, quaint Russian folk-inspired music by Alexandre Desplat, its dapper costumes…no, it also has an abundance of what we enigmatically attribute to as ‘heart’, or ‘soul’. The rather inexplicable in-betweenness that ties together the film’s comedy to its discussions of nostalgia and fascism, to all its other aforementioned accomplishments. By the way, I personally prefer the stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), but that was based on a Roald Dahl novel so I suppose that sort of disqualifies it.

Sequestering then, Wes Anderson’s auteurism off its heart or soul, effectively creates a pragmatic checklist of preliminary qualities that a film (however long or however short a TikTok or Instagram ‘film’ is) must possess in order to join in on the Wes Anderson fun. Not forgetting that it is indeed just a whimsical, harmless trend, the root cause for the beginning of the trend is not as easy to point out as where the trend points to; artificial intelligence. 

If his identity as an auteur can somehow be distilled to sets of prompts for an A.I. machine to churn through…has it now become the auteur’s fault, and even yet is it necessarily a bad thing? Exhibit A:

Exhibit A, just one of many – a Wes Anderson film trailer entirely manufactured by A.I.

Asteroid City​

Asteroid City was the least compelling Wes Anderson world and unfortunately, the least compelling story that I have experienced from the American filmmaker thus far. The story is a meta-narrative of a nesting doll; actors play actors in ‘Asteroid City’. A town confusingly dubbed ‘city’, named after an asteroid crash site, it isn’t a real canonical place within the film itself—it is a stage play of the same name, as The Host (played by Bryan Cranston) guides and narrates us through the play’s acts. 

We witness the play ‘Asteroid City’ in bright technicolor, and at other times the creation and production—the ‘behind the scenes’ of the play—in black and white. The play, consequently the film’s story, follows a group of parents and kids who travel in 1955 to ‘Asteroid City’, a one-stop American desert town, for a Junior Stargaze convention that comes to a screeching metaphysical shock thanks to an out-of-the-blue arrival of an alien. If this nesting-doll concept sounded confusing, believe me, that it is nowhere near as confusing a viewing experience as any literary description could afford it.

In classic Wes Anderson contradictory fashion, the immaculate external world provided a quiet backdrop for the tumultuous internal clashes within (and between) the characters. ‘Asteroid City’ is exactly that, a desert town in the middle of nowhere that focuses us on emotionally lost characters, primarily war photographer Augie Steenbeck (played by Jason Schwartzman) and famous movie star Midge Campbell (played by Scarlett Johansson).

Perhaps Anderson’s first official sci-fi attempt, the narrative of Asteroid City is of a dissimilar enthusiasm to his other, previous fare. Virtually all of his work before this would certainly fit in more to a ‘maximalist’ description, unrestricted liveliness that would seem to champion endless variety throughout its runtimes. Or perhaps, he neither wanted his films to be maximalist nor minimalist and instead amounts to just as how they should be in accordance to the unfurling of their respective plots. 

This time around in Asteroid City, it is not up for debate how minimalist and muted everything is. Despite the meta layers that seemingly give it a lot of artificial depth, the film has a minimized artifice. Its colour palette, the consistency of the atmosphere, to the extent of the setting that the film frames itself in—Asteroid City is so small that it would literally be impossible to lose your way in, where Motel Manager (played by Steve Carrell) sells tiny plots of land via vending machines. There is the same precision to the construction of every scene, as achieved by Anderson’s frequent collaborator cinematographer Robert Yeoman, just with it all being less stated and in a way, with less ambition.

The first half of the film, its opening act, was rather dreadful to get through. It was truly slow in an uninviting way beyond anything I have ever expected from a Wes Anderson picture. I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider walking out of the theatre a couple of times, settling myself in a particular headspace where this Wes Anderson film felt so overly gimmicky, that the auteur has seemed to run out of things to say and is just ‘running with it’ now. It definitely is one of those things where, even if only for a slight moment, the toy-town appearance of Asteroid City fails to charm your preferred interpretation of a desert aesthetic, everything crumbles apart because the sizeable amount of characters—who each only gets brief moments to present their own trials and tribulations—didn’t form anything enthralling altogether. What remained constant was the comedic gags that have always been so beloved in any Wes Anderson film. 

And that was Asteroid City, a film that ended up lesser than the sum of its parts. As a whole, achieved much lesser than its intriguing little bits. A film built by micro parts and lesser side storylines, such as the blossoming romance between Augie Steenbeck and Midge Campbell or between Augie’s boy, Woodrow Steenbeck (played by Jake Ryan) and Midge’s daughter, Grace Edwards (played by Dinah Campbell).

Two telling scenes proved formative to the film as a whole experience. The first, is the unexpected arrival of the alien in its flying saucer. Eerie, amusing, and bewildering, the scene came later in the film and was the first captivating moment in Asteroid City. None of the events before it could really be classed as a buildup to the scene, however. It was executed so well in delivering the film’s peak moment though, so much so that the incoherent jigsaw pieces of Asteroid City began to suddenly fall into place as if autonomously. This was telling, because in an interview during the Cannes festival a month ago, Wes Anderson admitted that the writing process—which ran through the Coronavirus pandemic—was more improvisational than anything, that the quarantine arc of the film was in a way he guessed, informed by the quarantine happening in real life at the time. Bryan Cranston for instance, also said in an interview that the actors in a Wes Anderson production feel like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle whereby none of them individually know what the big picture, the finished puzzle looks like.

The second, Margot Robbie’s balcony cameo as the actress from the production next door, eliciting the only emotional scene in the film within its 105-minute runtime. And together, these two scenes finally, finally hit the viewer in conveying what Asteroid City is actually all about. However, these two peaks were truly more relief than fulfilment, and the film eventually managed to grasp our attention while saying something worthwhile. 

The film boasts a heavy, star-studded cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum. Speaking from my cinema-going experience, there is reason to believe that the sheer amount of A-list actors in this film—most of them reduced to cameos of course—incites different reactions from different viewers. Personally speaking, the constant flooding of cameos from familiar famous faces didn’t raise the film’s gravitas by one bit, although I’m sure that was never the director’s intention in the first place. 

For the time being Asteroid City is the most Andersonian Wes Anderson film, one that cements his status currently as a visual auteur above all else. It was an unconvincing, lacklustre watch, it holds up as an epitome of the standard Wes Anderson picture if the story was something we didn’t need to pay attention to.

Stills from Asteroid City credit Focus Feature
Final Rating
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