“Asteroid City” was written and directed by the OCD mastermind Wes Anderson, featuring his usual all-star cast. The film tells the story of the posthumous final play by playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), cutting between the documentary about its production and the fictional play itself. Set in 1955, the play follows multiple families as they attend a junior stargazing event for their brainiac children in a small town called Asteroid City, when an alien suddenly arrives and changes their lives forever.
This is arguably the most complex script Wes Anderson has ever crafted, given its story within a story structure and double roles for each character (e.g. Jason Schwartzman plays both a dedicated actor and the fictional character Augie Steenbeck). Obviously what I’m describing sounds utterly perplexing, but it’s astonishing how easily the film pulls it all off. The movie admittedly starts a little slow, but it picks up after the first twenty minutes and ends in a thrilling finale which impeccably links the parallel storylines. This play angle also helps to make the film feel staunchly different from the rest of Anderson’s work which often feels repetitive due to his incredibly distinct style.
Yet what most makes “Asteroid City” stand out among Anderson’s filmography is the production design, which is legitimately some of the most impressive filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The crew built not only the gorgeous tiny desert town, but all the background aesthetics as well. Towering rock ranges, a massive asteroid crater, beautiful cacti/desert agriculture, entire road networks, etc. All of the play was filmed in this prodigious man-made area that’s simultaneously lived-in and cartoonish. The crew even had to drive golf carts to get around the set. If this isn’t Oscar-worthy, nothing is.
The score, while very Wes Anderson-y, was particularly beautiful. It had a youthful and adventurous, almost Spielbergian, energy to it but with an eccentric flare. The music does a stellar job at immersing you into this world and adding even more life to it.
To no one’s surprise, the performances are stellar across the board. Anderson attracts the best talent around and knows just how to utilize each actor depending on their skillset. I’ll always argue that Jason Schwartzman has been Anderson’s best performer; he knows better than anyone how to deliver the monotone lines with hints of sarcasm and a melancholy vibe. The standout this time around is newcomer Jake Ryan, who plays Augie’s brilliant yet socially distant son Woodrow. With his relatable awkwardness and straight man presence, he brings a much needed heart to the film, plus some standout line delivery. Not to mention he has an uncanny resemblance to Schwartzman.
I do think, however, that this film struggles with a lack of emotion. It’s stylistically gorgeous and admirable, but I wish I felt a deeper connection to the characters like in some of Anderson’s previous films, namely “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
“Asteroid City” is far from Wes Anderson’s best film and far from his worst film. It lands right in the middle of his filmography for me, and that’s fine. It’s a technical wonder that’s unique enough to differentiate itself, although it suffers from some pacing issues and doesn’t have much emotion running through it.