Review: Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’

Asteroid City Review - 2023 Wes Anderson Movie Film

Vague Visages’ Asteroid City review contains minor spoilers. Wes Anderson’s 2023 movie stars Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson and Tom Hanks. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


Wes Anderson’s films have always been preoccupied with the very art of storytelling. Even when they’re not spanning several interconnected narratives — be they dual accounts of lost souls with connections to a formerly prestigious hotel, or journalists reminiscing about their best work following the death of their editor — the tension in Anderson’s films can often be driven by people waking up to the artifice of the stories they’ve long accepted as truth. It’s one of the reasons why the highly stylized nature of his work is a feature and not a bug; the form of the tall tales are designed to keep one at a slight remove, even if it does mean that Anderson leaves himself open to (often justified) criticism of focusing on style over substance.

Asteroid City, Anderson’s 11th feature, feels like a pointed response to critiques, acting as an exploration of the inherently artificial nature of cinematic storytelling. Like several of his previous films, this is addressed through a nested structure of sorts. The central drama, as explained by The Host (Bryan Cranston), is a recording of a play which ran for several hundred performances many years prior. The narrator frequently pauses the sci-fi inflected story to delve deeper into the tale behind the creation of this production. However, while the stage itself appears during frequent black-and-white interludes, viewers are transported to a small desert town located somewhere in-between California, Nevada and Arizona in the 1950s. Initially introduced via a playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), Asteroid City’s immediately transportative nature seems to be a rebuke to anybody demanding more realism from Anderson. And let’s face it, why would you want to see this unfold on a Brechtian soundstage, Dogville-style, when you could let the magic of the movies whisk you away?

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Asteroid City Review - 2023 Wes Anderson Movie Film

Even though Asteroid City’s film-within-a-film is a distinctly Andersonian work, complete with subplots about damaged father-son relationships and awkward childhood romantic infatuations, it represents the first time this European-spirited filmmaker has made an unabashed work of Americana. The narrative blossoms into his own deadpan take on an Irwin Allen disaster movie, while the use of Spain as a filming location to stand in for the American West recalls the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci — perhaps another subtle comment on why artificiality is key in crafting powerful work in this medium. The ensemble this time is led by Jason Schwartzman’s war photographer Augie Steenbeck, still reeling from the death of his wife (Margot Robbie), which he’s stubbornly kept a secret from his children. The protagonist takes his daughters to stay with his father, Stanley (Tom Hanks), while he escorts his son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), to the Junior Stargazer convention held in Asteroid City, where he quickly befriends the actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), whose daughter is also a finalist. The families, along with the people of the town, are soon held under quarantine after an unexpected intergalactic event takes place in the middle of their ceremony.

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Asteroid City Review - 2023 Wes Anderson Movie Film

As carefully controlled as every shot typically is for one of Anderson’s films, this is the most alive behind the wheel he has felt as a purely comic filmmaker in quite some time. The density of sight gags and frequent surreal interruptions play out like a live-action “Looney Tune” episode, which the ensemble brings to life with unwavering straight faces. But it’s the stories in-between the acts which increasingly prove to be the most rewarding, frequently diving into the relationship between the author and the person who is telling their story in ways that add further depth to the sci-fi pastiche. For example, it’s revealed that Norton’s playwright initially envisaged the role of Augie for himself, before casting his lover (played by Schwartzman) instead. With no roles for gay men on screen during this period, and very few on the stage, Asteroid City becomes a powerful commentary on how artists used their work as a means of assimilation — to transform into an all-American leading man, even if that is the most insincere aspect of the whole façade.

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Later in Asteroid City, Schwartzman’s actor hastily leaves the stage after becoming confused by his character’s motivations during a dialogue sequence where he is tasked with performing an unprovoked act of self-harm, something that threatens to rupture his perception of the play around him. It’s an initially confounding sequence, but one that upon reflection has one of the more powerful things to say about storytelling: in an age where every film must have an “ending explained” article, Asteroid City argues that there’s something freeing in finding small, impenetrable mysteries in your narrative, and that’s where the greatest creative sparks can lie.

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Asteroid City Review - 2023 Wes Anderson Movie Film

The initial reviews of Asteroid City from Cannes were decidedly mixed but mostly echoed a similar sentiment: that this was business as usual for Anderson, and that he shouldn’t expect to pick up any new fans. The more I’ve reflected on the movie, the more I’ve come to disagree with this statement, finding Asteroid City to be the American filmmaker’s most rewarding work in nearly a decade. As Anderson’s style becomes the most imitable of any director working today, thanks to endless TikTok trends and laughably bad AI-generated videos, he’s made a film about style as substance, unpacking how the ways in which we tell stories are every bit as important as the stories themselves. To write Asteroid City off as more of the same would be to overlook how quietly radical a leap forward this is for Anderson as a filmmaker.

Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.

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