Asteroid City Review: A Top-Tier Wes Anderson Original With A Magical Sci-Fi Edge [Cannes 2023]

Some directors are afraid to leap beyond the box they're relegated to. Establish yourself in a certain way and the audience is bound to remember you as such for as long as you're worth remembering. When it comes to Wes Anderson, we all know him as the aesthetic auteur he has proven himself to be, but even he has had a hard time leaping from beyond the box over the years. But with his latest film, "Asteroid City," Anderson has opened himself up more than ever before to possibilities, and that, dear reader, makes even the most subtle differences shine. The result is a light and breezy aesthetic journey with a joyful heart that allows the audience to simply kick back and enjoy potentially one of Anderson's easiest watches yet — but not without the delight of some new and exciting approaches.

"Asteroid City" follows a group of students, parents, and other colorful characters who gather in the fictional American desert town of Asteroid City to attend the 1955 Junior Stargazers Convention. But when an unexpected visitor arrives, it throws the whole small town into disarray.

Doing a mix of everything

Anderson's choice to frame "Asteroid City" as a play within a teleplay within a film — yeah, you read that right — is simply the first excellent element of this delightful film. As the events of the story open, the audience is greeted by Bryan Cranston's narrator character, who sets the scene concerning a prolific American playwright and his epic "Asteroid City." It's a really fun plot device that is both unexpected and totally welcomed, allowing the audience to effectively ponder the deeper questions of the film much like the characters eventually do, especially when they break the illusion of their presence in the "fictional" story. Edward Norton plays the legendary playwright, Conrad Earp, who only exists outside of the central story in small world-shaping cameos, and he also brings a sweet sense of creative magic to the overall tale. After all, writers are the ones who truly shape our worlds, real or imagined.

The auteur's choice to delve into the sci-fi genre is a very welcomed one, considering he really hasn't taken that kind of plunge before. Anderson is having some serious genre fun in this film, but he isn't afraid to combine that with other more conventional genres, like drama and romance. It's par for the course for him, but Anderson knows he is at his best when he does a mix of everything. "Asteroid City" is truly no exception, and it's fun to watch the film wholly enjoy and establish itself through its genre leanings, its dialogue on the part of Anderson, and its physical character building on the part of its actors.

A world of possibility

Even more delicious than his decision to test the science-fiction waters is Anderson's choice to mesh live-action and stop-motion within the same film. We're pretty used to him opting for one or the other, but this quirky, cute movie had just enough stop-motion elements to make a strong impact. In fact, he makes it a point to use stop-motion elements in some of the movie's most important moments, which ultimately gives the tactic a strong sense of purpose. One particular sci-fi creature makes an appearance in the film using the animation tactic, and it beautifully opens up a world of possibility that feels new from an Anderson picture. In fact, it brings a fairy tale sense to the film that, despite his usual whimsical tone, hasn't quite been seen before in his work this way.

As expected, the film packs a punch with its incendiary — and quite large — ensemble cast. Anderson has a knack for bringing together some of the best performers time and time again, to the point where by this stage in his career he has quite a few repeat offenders on his cast lists. But the beautiful thing is, his casting choices are nearly never off. Jason Schwartzman anchors the film with an understated and smart performance as the story's leading man Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer. Scarlett Johansson plays opposite as a beautiful and beguiling actress named Midge Campbell. The pair excel in these parts and it's clear they really enjoy playing with one another, in all their characters' complicated glory. That's the thing, Augie and Midge — and many of Anderson's characters — are complicated, and "Asteroid City" gives them the space to unravel themselves in relation to one another.

Huge risks and major swings

Jake Ryan, who plays Augie's eldest son and junior stargazer Woodrow, is particularly charming and effective, and even his slight anti-social, isolated smart kid qualities come off endearing. He's appeared in a few Anderson films before, and it's clear why the director enjoys using him; Ryan fits in well with the Anderson style, both visually and tonally as a performer. You can't help but root for him the entire time, especially when he develops a crush on Midge's daughter, Grace Edwards' Dinah.

The only real gripe to be had with the film is the fact that, all things considered, it's quite a safe movie. Anderson isn't taking any huge risks or major swings here, he is just giving you a good time and trying a few small yet mighty new things. And you know what? There's really nothing wrong with simply being entertained and happy without having to think or analyze things too hard, and that's the gift "Asteroid City" brings. Sure, there are family dynamics that are a bit awry and other dramatic tentpoles, but Anderson isn't going out of his way to really do something different here, and he certainly isn't giving us drama with as much depth as, say, "The Royal Tenenbaums" or "The Darjeeling Limited." But that's in no way a bad thing for "Asteroid City."

A top-tier Wes Anderson original

That said, it's quite fun to watch Anderson's finished film because it's clear how much care and attention to detail went into the entire process. At this point in his career, it feels silly to mention or congratulate Anderson on his eye for production design and his innate ability to create wholly unique spaces — but it remains the truth no matter what. "Asteroid City" leans into a bright yellow and turquoise color palette that captures the fresh air and sprawling landscapes of the desert. The film also employs a whole host of stylized sets and props that scream Anderson in their angularity and uniformity, leaning wholeheartedly into his usual stylized visions. Though he has the same overall aesthetic throughout his filmography, each movie still feels unique to its setting and plot, and "Asteroid City" happily follows suit. It's a joy to actually watch, and enticing for the eye to have so many locations and objects to take in as the action plays out.

"Asteroid City" is a top-tier Wes Anderson original that brings back the carefree fun and charm of some of his best works while also turning his own personal conventions on their ear in an attempt to try new things. Though this film may not be as profound as some of his earlier works in messaging, it's a blissful little experiment in taking some small yet important risks despite the safety net your art has built for you, no matter how small.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10