Review by C.J. Bunce
Wes Anderson’s new retro-science fiction spectacle Asteroid City is probably the most visually stunning science fiction movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s also the writer-director’s masterwork, a culmination of pushing and pulling on the minds of moviegoers for four decades, and a filmmaker securing his niche as a major force in cinema. Asteroid City is a picture of the past via film–our best and only available time travel in the real world–as Anderson recreates the culture and outlook of a bygone era. Anderson delivers a what-might-have-been view of an encounter with an alien in a desert town that is also a picture of a creator as the conduit for a story that’s not even all that clear to the storyteller. This is cinema at its finest, thanks in no small part to frequent Anderson collaborator, cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman. Anderson has been nominated for the Academy Award seven times, but this is the one for both Anderson and Yeoman. It helps that those in front of the camera are at their best, too, conjuring the styles of Hollywood’s greats.
Jason Schwartzman is only one of the guides for the viewer, playing a father of three girls and a boy, a recent widower traveling with his family to take the son to a national gathering for young science geniuses (Junior Stargazers) in a town called Asteroid City, where they are about to celebrate the 3,000 year (give or take) anniversary of the arrival of said asteroid, which formed the celebrated, nearby crater. Only none of this ever happened, because it’s just a story being recounted Our Town style, with Bryan Cranston in the role of narrator both inside the story, and playing the role of the Thornton Wilder type playwright is Edward Norton.
Lost yet? It won’t matter. You sort of absorb the world Anderson creates and go with it. Despite stop-motion features and a town only just real enough to not be a movie set, the pleasure of this show is watching every beautifully crafted scene and set piece. The best are focused on Scarlett Johansson as an actress taking her own daughter for the big science fair gathering in this steamy little town. Johansson’s character at times evokes Kim Novak in Picnic, with hints of what life may have been like for Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe behind the scenes.
The 2001: A Space Odyssey comparison has multiple components. That movie surprised with its new vision of space. But despite being cryptic at times, Asteroid City isn’t incomprehensible, and Anderson runs circles around any Stanley Kubrick movie here. He re-creates scenes that feel like they were filmed by Otto Preminger when Anderson keys in on Norton in black and white, Orson Welles when he builds his filmmaker world, and Alfred Hitchcock in his use of color and beauty contrasted with the story in front of you, and that stylish vibe from Rear Window and Vertigo.
Anderson finds the best in every one of his performers: Norton as the troubled writer, Jeffrey Wright as a General officiating the science event while looking to tap some space projects for military use, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, and Steve Park as other parents of the kids, Tom Hanks as an only slightly gruff grandfather looking in on his son-in-law and grandkids, Matt Dillon as a mechanic, Steve Carell as an innovative motel manager selling real estate out of vending machines, Tilda Swinton as a scientist who once stood in these kids’ shoes, Adrien Brody as an actor who first made Schwartzman’s role famous, Willem Dafoe as an acting school icon, Maya Hawke as a teacher bringing a busload of kids to see the crater (and may or may not have eyes for a cowboy singer passing through), and Rupert Friend as said cowboy. Plus there are smaller scenes with the likes of Rita Wilson, Margot Robbie, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Jeff Goldblum, and Tony Revolori. Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Sophia Lillis, Aristou Meehan, and Ethan Josh Lee play the kids.
Then there’s the music. Alexandre Desplat captures each reality perfectly with his score, peppered with popular music from decades past that settles viewers into this strange but homey and familiar place like an audible painting–sometimes Edward Hopper, sometimes Norman Rockwell. The singing cowboy bits are icing on the cake.
This is actually less of a coming-of-age movie than we typically get from Anderson, but he includes enough here for fans of the genre. In many ways this is Anderson’s attempt at making a Spielberg movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. You’ve got to think both Spielberg and George Lucas, known for their love of throwback imagery, would really love this picture.
Asteroid City arrived in theaters as recently as June, but it’s now available to everyone at home via streaming provider Peacock. Look for many Oscar nominations come Spring, for Anderson, Roman Coppola as co-writer, Yeoman, Johannson, Desplat, and the art design team. If you’re tired of the same old loud action flick or historical drama, you find Asteroid City a refreshing change of pace. Don’t miss it.