Cowboys and aliens converge in the titular Asteroid City, director Wes Anderson‘s irresistible slice of 1950s retrofuturism that premiered in competition at last month’s Cannes Film Festival and opens in Prague cinemas from June 22. Next to the filmmaker’s similarly-staged The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is one of his most captivating films.
Like that 2014 feature, Asteroid City opens with an expanded narrative scope that introduces the film’s story-within-a-story plot. In a black-and-white, 4:3 behind-the-scenes documentary-like sequences, Bryan Cranston plays a Rod Serling-esque narrator who explains the the genesis of a play named Asteroid City by American writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton).
The visual scope soon expands into sun-bleached technicolor widescreen as we watch the ‘play’ Asteroid City unfold as a spectacular cinematic presentation, with drawn-out dolly shots taking us on a tour of a sleepy desert town, population 87.
Into the town rolls a family of five, their car towed into the local mechanic whose shop is ominously surrounded by vehicles stripped for parts and stacked on top of each other: photographer and recent widower Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), teenage son Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and five-year-old triplet daughters. Sensing a longer delay, Augie phones father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) to come pick up the girls.
The family is in the titular Asteroid City, a town defined by its 5000-year-old meteorite and suspiciously well-preserved impact crater. They’ll soon be joined by an array of other colorful characters in town to attend the Junior Stargazer awards, including parents played by Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, and Steve Park, and Hollywood actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), accompanying her daughter.
Then there’s the motel manager (Steve Carrell, filling in for Anderson regular Bill Murray, who came down with Covid during filming), scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), military general Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), a schoolteacher (Maya Hawke) with ten young students in tow, and a singing cowboy (Rupert Friend) stranded in town with his band.
As all of these character’s gather in Asteroid City’s crater, the inciting event of the ‘play’ we’re watching is the inexplicable appearance of an alien, which sends the tiny town and its temporary inhabitants into government-enforced quarantine. What to make of the unexpectedly close encounter is a riddle the characters find themselves struggling to answer.
But the crux of Asteroid City comes in the black-and-white documentary scenes that appear intermittently throughout. These include a sequence with an acting coach (Willem Dafoe) who trains the performers to fall asleep on stage, and a poignant exchange of dialogue between Schwartzman, playing the actor who portrays Augie in the play, and Margot Robbie, as the actress who played his wife, but had her one scene cut.
There’s a beautiful parallel between the characters in the play struggling to understand the alien encounter, and the actors playing the characters struggling to understand the events of the play itself. Asteroid City is an unexpectedly deep and even spiritual experience that explores the search for meaning in a universe too complex to possibly comprehend.
Despite all the Anderson style – the impeccably-crafted sets and costumes, pretty-as-a-picture framing, the unnatural performances, and everything else – the filmmaker has a way of sneaking real human emotion in his narrative almost unnoticed. And in his best films – The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and now Asteroid City – the emotional content hits so much harder because of how subtly it is woven in.
It goes without saying that Asteroid City looks great, but despite all the notices that will claim that this is the most Andersonville of all of the director’s films, he’s really created something unique to its time and place here, with tropes of the 1950s, retro sci-fi, and the American southwest on full display. While obviously the work of the same artist, Asteroid City is genuinely distinct from Anderson’s previous work.
And Jason Schwartzman, the breakout star of the director’s Rushmore, feels like a breakout star all over again here: no longer resembling Max Fischer, he’s a revelation as the soul-searching presence at the heart of Asteroid City. Despite partially inhabiting an artificial Anderson creation, Schwartzman fills the role with depth and humanity in a performance worthy of consideration for end-of-year awards.