In Review: Asteroid City

Review by Tim Robins


Wes Anderson's Asteroid City (2023)

I had hoped Asteroid City would be a Palate Cleanser, sandwiched as it is between two summer blockbusters – The Flash and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Unfortunately, Wes Anderson’ has served us with a bitter amuse bouche that left a bad taste in my mouth, and set my teeth on edge.

Asteroid City’s central conceit is that we are watching a play, albeit one presented with a typically Andersonian, pastel colour palette. We also see, in black and white, a television drama documentary about staging the play. So I was left with the impression that there is no “real” Astro City in the film, only its staged representation. 

Bryan Cranston stars as "Host" in writer/director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
Bryan Cranston stars as “Host” in writer/director Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, a Focus Features release. Photo: Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Unsurprisingly, characters occasionally move from plane to plane. The host of the TV show, played by Bryan Cranston, finds himself randomly drifting in and out of the play itself and, of course, one actor walks off screen into the TV documentary and demands to know his character’s motivations. This leads to a chance encounter with the actress who was supposed to be his wife in the play, but was written out.

So Asteroid City is super arch and best watched with an eyebrow raised higher than one of Roger Moore’s. The play revolves around a “Stargazers Convention”, held every year to commemorate a meteorite falling to Earth and celebrate young people’s science projects.

We join events when a war photographer, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) arrives at the barely built Asteroid City  with his son Woodrow and three sisters. Augie develops a romantic interest in actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), who is also entering the science fair. Dinah and Woodrow develop a romantic interest of their own, only slightly diverted by the arrival of an actual alien.

Asteroid City (2023)
Asteroid City (2023)

I know I’m not the only critic to see resonances from the Covid-19 pandemic. The town is locked down under quarantine, and Augie and Midge must flirt with each other from the confines of their respective cabins. This contributes to a cast of characters who all have problems expressing their true feelings. Anderson himself has suggested the characters are struggling with loss and trauma, and these emotions are buried in different ways. General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) opens the Stargazer awards ceremony with a melodramatic story about his life, eccentrically dividing it into book chapters. Anderson has said this performance arises from Gibson’s PTSD. 

Jeffrey Wright as General Gibson in Asteroid City. Photo: Pop. 87 Productions/ Focus Features
Jeffrey Wright as General Gibson in Asteroid City. Photo: Pop. 87 Productions/ Focus Features

There are chuckles to be had here. Anderson has an eye for the absurd but, perhaps inevitably, a movie about uptight people left me feeling uptight. 

Asteroid City also captures the tensions of the pandemic rather too well. This includes watching scientists apparently fumbling around with madcap experiments from the child contestant’s ray for accelerating vegetable growth (it works, but leaves the plants toxic) to the random, above ground nuclear bomb tests that can be seen on the horizon. And families have had members who, like Augie’s wife, have been written out too soon leaving unexpected gaps in family stories.

The posters for Asteroid City are covered in more stars than a five-star general. It was only later that I picked up on the harsher reviews. Rex Reed’s, in The Observer, was excoriating, describing Anderson as “the preposterously overrated writer-director who churns out the kind of whimsical cinematic jabberwocky that appeals to millennial movie audiences that applaud anything they don’t understand.”

Asteroid City (2023)

I did note the preponderance of Twenty-Somethings in the audience, but I think that’s a good thing. It was certainly a bigger and more engaged crowd than The Flash attracted. 

Sadly, for me, Asteroid City has none of the interest and fun of Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel because that was funnier, had a plot and was a wonderful character study by Ralph Finnes. If that movie was a deliciously concocted example of nouvelle cuisine, Asteroid City is a cheese and ham sandwich. I was not amused.

Tim Robins

Asteroid City screened at the Cannes film festival and is in UK and Irish cinemas now | Official web site:

Categories: Features, Film, Other Worlds, Reviews

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