Wes Anderson is pretty much the perfect example of being a cinematic auteur. He has such a unique style that you can simply look at a couple seconds of his work, and you just know immediately you’re watching a Wes Anderson film. Even from his early days with Bottle Rocket and Rushmore to The Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Asteroid City, these films are all very different, but still one would say are uniquely Wes Anderson. His films are a bit divisive, and I completely understand, but those who are fans tend to really love his work. Personally the only my favorite from him is Moonrise Kingdom; it was a perfect blend of style, charm, and heart; then he has a film like The French Dispatch that got plenty of critical love, but I just couldn’t really get into it. That brings us to his newest release, Asteroid City, which boasts a huge ensemble cast with many familiar faces from his previous films and some big-name stars we get to see him work with for the first time. Is this a trip to the desert worth taking, or should you simply take a viewing detour?
The film is done in a unique way. The black & white portions are dramatized portions about a play that is being produced for a 50’s style TV show by a famous playwright, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). We get to see the drama unfold as the production of the play comes to life for the TV show with the stars played by Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson. Then there is the director of the show, Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), who has his own sort of drama with his wife and his cheating ways. Maybe I missed something, but none of this was hinted at in the trailers, and to be fair, this really took me out of the film, because the behind-the-scenes action of the TV show is constantly interrupting the pace of “Asteroid City”, which is basically a movie within a movie.
The “Asteroid City” portion of the movie is in beautiful color and in cinemascope. This story follows Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzman), a somewhat grieving widower, who is travelling to Asteroid City with his family for a Junior Stargazers’ convention, where his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is participating. Also showing up in the town is Midge Campbell (Johansson), a Hollywood starlet, along with her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), who is also taking part in the convention. Augie is immediately captivated by Midge and snaps her photo; he always has his camera with him since being a former war photographer. Also coming to the convention is Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks); he’s Augie’s father in-law, and Augie plans on dumping his kids with him till he can finish grieving. Things of course get complicated when at the convention, during the celebration of the anniversary of the asteroid striking the town, an alien arrives and steals the asteroid. This causes a panic, and General Gibson (JefferyWright) orders the town on lockdown. If that doesn’t seem complicated, let me assure you there are numerous other characters who are sprinkled within the town that are charming, quirky, and just a hoot to watch, but that will ruin part of the fun of watching this.
The lockdown aspect is something we can all relate to, and the way Anderson utilized it for this story works well. I liked how we see the relationship form between Augie and Midge, even though the story I feel had the most potential was between the kids, Woodrow and Dinah. Anderson showed us how great he is at giving us tales of adolescent love, Moonrise Kingdom to be specific, but he doesn’t give it the time it deserves here. Then there are Augie’s daughters, who are not taking the death of their mother well. Instead of this being an emotional moment, instead it is played for laughs, as the kids pretend to be witches and want to bring their mother back. I’m not saying this needs to become a Lifetime movie melodrama, but this had moments where it could have had some emotional substance, but it was just wasted.
The film is loaded with stars, and many of them have some scene-stealing moments. Bryan Cranston does a terrific job playing Rod Sterling-like host who got one of the biggest laughs from me. Also filling out the cast are Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Hope Davis, Steve Carell, Maya Hawke, and Margot Robbie, along with several others.
The production design is one thing that definitely stands out in this film. I love how they captured the 1950’s look, from the diner to the old gas station and even the cozy little motel rooms. So much of this I thought was shot on a soundstage or was just done with mattes, but they actually created this little town, and I absolutely love it. Even though this is trying to capture the spirit of the 1950’s alien attack films, we unfortunately don’t get a full-scale invasion. Just imagining a Wes Anderson take on Mars Attacks makes me smile, but we don’t get that here.
This is one where I loved the cast, but I wanted more. I could easily have done without the backstage story; it took away the film’s momentum. I can’t help but feel disappointed with this one. Sure there are some funny gags here and there, but this just isn’t up to par with his previous work.
“I still don’t understand the play.”
Asteroid City is presented in the aspect ratio 1.37:1 and 2.39:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 29 mbps. The different aspect ratios is due to how the film alternates between the action occurring in the play (this is in color and in 2.39:1 format) and then everything outside the framework of the play (this is in black & white 1:37.1). The color portions are bright and warm with a heavy emphasis on pastels to capture the 1950’s tone of the time. The color palette is vibrant and sharp, giving the film a surreal look. At times the background looks like a Warner Bros cartoon that has come to life, and at any moment we’ll see Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner. The black & white sequences look just as great with the deep inky blacks along with the bright whites.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio mix is nothing too remarkable with this kind of film that has no action scenes and is mostly just a bunch of characters talking. The audio is clear, and the levels are nice, with the occasional burst in the sound design with an atomic blast or a laser being fired. The score by Alexandre Desplat is charming and sounds great here, though.
There is a Play-All option which I would recommend doing simply because all together the features only run about 7 min 20 sec.
Desert Town (pop. 87) – Discusses them building the set in Spain and designing the entire town to fit the 1950’s style.
Doomsday Carnival- A video showing the doomsday carnival coming together.
Montana and the Ranch Hands- Some BTS footage of the musical number in the film.
The Players- A look at the cast in the film.
Considering how many of Wes Anderson’s films get the Criterion treatment, I wouldn’t be surprised if another release of this film were to happen with a more robust set of supplements.
I wish this film stuck to what the trailers promised. I don’t mind when a director throws me a curve ball, but this time I felt Anderson wanting to be clever got in the way of telling a fun story. I don’t hate the film; there are too many charming characters and quirky moments to call this a bad film, but when I look at the catalog of films Wes Anderson has given us, this ranks toward the bottom of my list.