By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Few directors have a style as singular as Wes Anderson. His eccentric, colorful, symmetrical films have garnered acclaim for decades and remain some of the most visually impressive films of all time. But Anderson’s proclivity for unique visuals isn’t merely style over substance as his aesthetic marvels often feature side-by-side with poignant stories about family, grief, and growing up. Does Anderson excel in balancing lofty ideas and themes with marvelous visuals with his latest effort Asteroid City? Unfortunately, no.
Asteroid City has two parallel narratives running simultaneously and complementing one another. Black-and-white scenes tell the behind the scenes story of the production of a play / television show (it’s unclear) written by famed playwright Conrad Earp (played by Anderson regular Edward Norton). Color scenes depict the events of the play itself and are set in a version of 1955 that only a mind as unique as Anderson’s could conjure. In the play, students and parents have gathered in a fictional desert town from across the country for a Junior Stargazer convention. Here, the paths of many idiosyncratic individuals cross, including a war photographer, an actress, a scientist, a military general, a motel manager, a mechanic, and a singing cowboy.
Asteroid City will be a polarizing movie-going experience largely dependent on the extent to which one finds pleasure in director Wes Anderson’s unique visual storytelling. Anderson faithful will be fascinated and find joy in picking apart the meticulous detail infused into every frame. Others will loathe the experience of watching Asteroid City and view it as a grueling 105 minutes.
The inevitable divisiveness audiences will experience can be attributed to Anderson directing more confidently than ever before. Anderson has never been a four-quadrant, massive-appeal filmmaker, but there’s an intangible charm to the likes of Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fantastic Mr. Fox that makes them resonate more universally. This, however, is not the case with Asteroid City. Anderson’s extremely dry humor, meandering plot, and striking visuals are less accessible than ever, meaning this film will appeal to Wes Anderson freaks while inducing sleep in pretty much everyone else.
That’s because Anderson’s signature aesthetic only carries so far and, unfortunately, Asteroid City doesn’t have the rich characters, engaging plot, nor emotional undertones that his previous efforts have had in abundance. Few casts will rival the star power of Asteroid City (Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Steve Carrell, Scarlett Johansson to name a few), but there isn’t a single character who has a particularly striking or memorable role in the film. Their quirkiness and dry humor overwhelmingly fall flat, meaning Asteroid City doesn’t have that endearing quality Anderson’s other films have featured.
Narratively, Asteroid City is similarly meandering. The transition between black-and-white and color scenes takes some time to get used to and merely orienting to the film’s premise feels unnecessarily tricky. The color scenes prove far more engaging than their black-and-white counterparts, although both suffer from a lack of direction. Much of the film is spent with the melting pot of characters interacting with one another while quarantined in a small desert town. As these characters are largely uninteresting, Anderson takes the audience from one bumbling scene to the next at an uncomfortably slow pace until the film fizzles out to an unremarkable conclusion.
Asteroid City is a massive missed opportunity for director Wes Anderson considering the impressive cast assembled and the brilliant premise of its narrative. Die-hard fans of Anderson’s work will resonate with the dry humor and idiosyncratic characters, while more casual moviegoers will loathe an experience that is as meandering as it is flat. On paper, Asteroid City has all the ingredients needed to be a winning Anderson movie and yet, unfortunately, none of it comes together.