Asteroid City review: beautifully shot sci-fi from Wes Anderson

(L to R) Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
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With Asteroid City Wes Anderson presents another colourful and carefully shot feature – but its not so clear at conveying its central themes.

A Wes Anderson film wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson film without a fair amount of whimsy. His work is characterised by its surreal worlds, incredible ensembles and meticulous framing and set design, and Asteroid City has everything that an Anderson fan could wish for – and a musical number, too.

Set in the titular desert town during the 1950s, the opening credits establish a world where a freight train simultaneously transports grapefruit, cars, and a nuclear warhead. Bomb tests take place in the background as people sit at the diner, and they eye the mushroom clouds forming in the sky with only a passing interest.

Several families gather in Asteroid City for a Junior Stargazer convention that will reward the brightest young scientific minds for their incredibly futuristic inventions. War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) brings his gifted son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three young daughters to the town, while they try to grapple with the loss of their mother (Margot Robbie, appearing in one scene and a photograph). Their grandfather Stanley (Tom Hanks) meets them there.

Then there’s actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) who’s rehearsing for a role while her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards) attends the convention. Maya Hawke plays a teacher trying to control a group of primary school children and teach them about the universe, while Jeffrey Wright plays General Grif Gibson, who runs the convention, and Tilda Swinton is the lead scientist at the local observatory.

There are so many other names on the cast list. A significant chunk of the supporting actors seemed to have agreed to small roles with barely any lines just for a chance to work with Anderson. While it’s wonderful to see the faces of talented performers like Tony Revolori and Hong Chau, they don’t get much to work with.

(L to R) Grace Edwards as "Dinah", Scarlett Johansson as "Midge Campbell" and Damien Bonnaro as "Bodyguard/Driver" in writer/director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Grace Edwards (left) as Dinah, Scarlett Johansson (right) as Midge Campbell.

Shortly after getting to know these characters, the convention is disrupted by a world-changing event that leaves the characters questioning everything.

Of course, this is Wes Anderson, so there’s more than one story going on here. In the world of the film, Asteroid City is a TV play written by screenwriter Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by Adrian Brody’s Schubert Green. The tale of the play’s journey from page to screen – itself shot and staged as though it were a play – is shown in segments that intertwine with the main story, as Bryan Cranston narrates these events in a perfect, resonant voice-over voice.

The two connected stories provide Anderson with the opportunity to play with colour and aspect ratio, as has become expected. The black and white of the play scenes are a stark contrast to the highly saturated main narrative, but at times this feels like the only reason for it. The additional storyline doesn’t really add anything important narratively or thematically, and the end result is a superfluous storyline that feels included only for aesthetic purposes.

This is where Asteroid City struggles a little bit. Visually, it’s incredibly nice to look at, and you can’t deny that each shot looks like it’s been agonised over until it’s perfectly framed. The cast are on top form, with the three young girls who play Augie’s daughters – Ella, Gracie and Willan Faris – the unexpected standouts. But on top of the extra storyline, the film uses its sci-fi roots to pose existential questions and introduce struggles around belief, religion and science – themes that are inherently big and questions that are ultimately unanswerable.

At one point Schwartzman, as the actor playing Augie, tells its director that he doesn’t understand the play, and the unclear message may leave viewers feeling a similar way.

Anderson’s Asteroid City is fittingly much like the night sky the junior stargazers are so fascinated by: beautiful and bright, but also cold and empty.

Asteroid City is in cinemas on 23rd June.

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