Review: Asteroid City


Wes Anderson has been making films since “Bottle Rocket” (1996). They are distinctive for the symmetrical composition of his shots, the color palate of each shot, long, tableau-like takes, deadpan delivery of dialogue, etc. And, of course, the recurring cast of actors playing different parts. Some people love Wes Anderson – others cannot stomach him.

“Asteroid City” is no different – except it is even more so. This is a story that takes place in the eponymous mythical desert town, presumably the setting for a live stage play whose preparation is in turn being chronicled on 1950s TV by a Walter Cronkite-like host (Bryan Cranston – “Breaking Bad”).

The 1950s scenes are filmed in the 4:3 image ratio of the time. Black and white of course, with images often “burned out” due to overlighting and lack of contrast, or murky, or both. They are actually reminiscent of the “kinescope” film recordings of broadcast TV shows done at the time. The results were poor quality recordings. The sound quality is no better. In the 1950s Cronkite hosted a program “You Are There,” which recreated important historical events, as they might be reported today. That’s the idea behind this portion of the film.

The portions that represent the actual play, “Asteroid City,” are in modern 16:9 ratio, are in desert pastels, with cartoonish perspectives representative of the 1950s Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. There is even a roadrunner sign posted next to the ridiculous two-lane highway with preposterous flying off (or is it on) ramp to nowhere around which the desert city is centered.

In fact, everything about this production is fantastical – buffoonish representations of places, people, societal institutions, small town businesses, the creative process, country-western singers, motor courts, alien visitation, and so on. Oh, and nerdy teenage geniuses who invent devices not even possible today, much less 1955. Perhaps the only link to reality is the occasion atomic bomb blast; the mushroom cloud viewed casually from the town’s diner window.

The movie features an all-star cast. In fact, there are more actors than there are decent parts for them, so some appearances barely rate “cameo” status. These include Matt Dillon and Bob Balaban. Jeff Goldblum reputedly plays an alien, but I don’t believe it.

Despite the cartoonish depiction, this is a very complex story within a story, covering loss, adolescent alienation and family unity. If you can get past the Anderson foibles, you will enjoy it.


Director/writer: Wes Anderson
Producers: Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales
Cinematographer: Robert Yoeman
Editor: Barney Pilling
Music: Alexandre Desplat

Host: Bryan Cranston
Conrad Erp: Edward Norton
Augie Steenbeck: Jason Schwartzman
Midge Campbell: Scarlett Johansson
Motel Manager: Steve Carell
General Gibson: Jeffrey Wright
Grandpa: Tom Hanks

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