The Movie Waffler New to VOD - ASTEROID CITY | The Movie Waffler


The guests at a stargazers contest become trapped in a small town.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum

Asteroid City poster

There are certain guarantees with a new Wes Anderson movie. You know it's going to look better than 99% of the other new movies you'll see in a given year, and you know it will feature an ensemble cast stacked with A-list stars working for scale in between superhero movies and under-rated character actors granted as much screen time as their more recognisable aforementioned counterparts. There's no guarantee however that a new Anderson movie is going to offer a compelling narrative or interesting characters for all those celebs to play. Such is the case with Asteroid City, a stunningly gorgeous film that stars, well…everyone, but which has little interest in the likes of story, plot and character.

Asteroid City review

If Anderson's previous movie, The French Dispatch, was a love letter to a time when America took journalism seriously, Asteroid City opens in a manner that suggests it's set to do something similar for the lost golden age of American television drama. We're greeted by Bryan Cranston playing the sort of self-serious host who feels it's his duty to educate the American masses huddled around their goggleboxes on the serious art form of television drama. It's 1955, a time when every writer was happy to work in a medium that hadn't yet developed a reputation as chewing gum for the senses. One such writer is Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), the playwright behind the subsequent drama within the drama.

Said drama (although drama is a strong word for this listless spectacle) revolves around a convention for teenage scientists being held in the titular Asteroid City, a small town in the middle of the Nevada desert where a piece of space debris landed several thousand years ago. Little do the guests know that they're set to be quarantined in the town following the arrival of an alien (which appears as if it's stop-motion animated yet is credited as being performed by Jeff Goldblum).

Asteroid City review

That's a cracking premise. Trouble is, it's not a Wes Anderson premise. It's a 1980s Joe Dante premise. You can imagine the fun Dante would have this setup, giving us a bunch of quirky characters while paying homage to the atomic age b-movies of his youth. The characters that inhabit Asteroid City look slightly quirky, but they're all surprisingly bland. The closest the film has to a traditional drama is an unlikely burgeoning romance between a war photographer (Jason Schwartzman) and a self-obsessed movie star (Scarlett Johansson). It doesn't go anywhere of note, nor does a similar flirtation between a young schoolteacher (Maya Hawke) and a singing cowboy (Rupert Friend). Other characters wander in and out in the starry form of Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Margot Robbie, Liev Schrieber, Hope Davis and Willem Dafoe, to name but a few, with most of them getting about as much screen time as a Hitchcock cameo. You can't help but wonder if Anderson is constantly being pestered by actors to write them a role and decided to get them all out of the way in a single movie. The poor bloke probably just wants to make movies with Schwartzman but has the agent of every A-lister constantly leaving him voicemails.

Every now and then we'll leave the main narrative to return to the backstage drama, which just comes off as filler. Seeing Norton's playwright audition Schwartzman as the actor set to play the character within Asteroid City, or Brody as a director in the midst of a divorce adds nothing. The setting of Asteroid City is known for a large crater left by that rock that fell from the skies all those millennia ago, and the film has a similarly massive hole where the drama should be. It's ironic that Anderson chooses to evoke mid-century American drama, which was known for its resolute commitment to narrative and character, two elements sorely lacking here.

Asteroid City review

Of course, it looks incredible, with miniatures and sets that recall the creations of another Anderson, British kids' TV legend Gerry. Anderson seems a little too in love with his sets, with the camera constantly panning and tracking through them as if to make sure we realise just how much craft has gone into their construction. At times the camera moves through the world in a way that seems inspired by those Lucasarts video games from the late '80s and early '90s (Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was a childhood fave of this writer), and the lack of narrative thrust gives the act of watching Asteroid City the appearance of watching someone explore the setting of an elaborate video game while ignoring the actual gameplay. Yes, it's a lovingly detailed world but can we get back to the mission?

Asteroid City
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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