‘Asteroid City’ Review: Wes Anderson Buries His Sci-Fi Story Under Fancy Piles of Eccentricity

Cannes 2023: Anderson’s movie looks amazing, of course, but it might well be the least involving film he’s ever made

Asteroid City
Cannes Film Festival

Here’s one thing we learned at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday: If Wes Anderson really were to make a “Star Wars” movie, that film would look nothing at all like the viral video that purports to show what Anderson’s version of the Lucasfilm universe might be like.

The proof is in “Asteroid City,” Anderson’s new movie, which premiered in Cannes on Tuesday and does include an alien who comes to Earth in a spaceship. It takes place in a galaxy far, far away, to be sure, but that galaxy is on Earth. It’s only far, far away from any recognizable human behavior because it’s in Wes-world: a small town populated with nothing but eccentrics in interesting clothing with speech patterns that only marginally resemble actual human communication.

“Asteroid City” tells the story of a three-day “Asteroid Day” event in the titular Asteroid City, a desert stopover in the Western U.S. known for the asteroid crater – actually, it’s a meteorite crater, but why quibble? – just off the main drag (and the only drag, for that matter). But it’s set in 1955 and begins with Bryan Cranston as a TV announcer explaining that we’re about to see a behind-the-scenes program detailing the creation of a hit stage play about the events in Asteroid City.

In other words, the director puts so many filters between the viewer and the events he’s depicting that the plot barely registers. It’s as if Anderson took a modest painting, stuck it in an elaborate frame, put that behind glass and brocade curtains, dropped it in the middle of a stage in an ornate old opera house and then filmed it in black-and-white in a 1:1.33 aspect ratio. If you can still focus on the painting at the heart of all this, kudos to you.  

It looks amazing, of course, but it might well be the least involving movie he’s ever made, with an amazing cast providing little but momentary distraction.

After the hits “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” and the stop-motion animated films “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson came to Cannes two years ago with “The French Dispatch,” an anthology film that played like an enjoyable spin of Wes’ Greatest Hits. In a way, “Asteroid City” is a filmmaker’s reboot, taking him in a different direction even as it trots out the same focus on insanely detailed idiosyncrasies and eccentricities dressed in insanely detailed clothes.

But at this point, all those amazing surfaces and all that studied oddity is feeling more annoying than enjoyable. There was heart in “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Grand Budapest,” not to mention in “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tennenbaums” at the beginning of his career – but at this point, his films are so hermetically sealed that the response of three little girls to their mother’s death is played as a running gag.

But then, so is everything else. The black-and-white documentary hosted by Cranston interviews the playwright who wrote the story (Edward Norton) and then gives way to widescreen color credits in which a truly ridiculous roster of actors spools by quickly: Anderson regulars Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Jeffrey Wright, Scarlett Johansson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe and Tony Revolori, but also Tom Hanks, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Margot Robbie, Hong Chau and others.

The credits look like animation, but so do the live-action events that follow in a town constructed out of a pretty terrifying palette of colors not generally found in nature. That’s where we find a family of four whose car breaks down when they get to the town where their oldest son is a finalist in a Junior Stargazer competition; a movie star played by Johansson whose daughter is also in the competition; and various other brainiacs and their families, all to celebrate inventions like the one that can project an American flag (or an advertisement) on the moon.

Eventually, an alien shows up (he’s played by Jeff Goldblum, not that you’d notice unless you look closely), the whole gang gets put in lockdown under the orders of the president, Johannson does a nude scene and she and Schwartzman have a fling of sorts with only passing mention that his wife died three weeks earlier. None of means much of anything; in fact, it’s kind of dull once you get tired of all those pretty, garish colors.

Now and then we go back to Bryan Cranston and the original play – and in one of those interludes, Schwartzman’s character complains to the director, “I still don’t understand the play.”

“It doesn’t matter,” says the director, played by Brody. “Just keep telling the story.”

So Wes Anderson keeps telling this story, dropping aphorisms like You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep and sadly proving that his version of sci-fi has run into the earthbound law of diminishing returns. There’s the sense that he’s trying something a little different, at least, and maybe it’s the kind of movie that needs to be seen in a full house of fans who want to laugh.

But “Asteroid City” also feels like a wasted opportunity of sorts. At one point, a radio off-screen plays Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call,” the song that killed all the alien invaders in Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks.” It couldn’t help but prompt a longing for the days when a stylized auteur could embrace sci-fi rather than burying it in stylization and layers of remove.

Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.