16 Aug 2023

Movie Review - Asteroid City

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 16 August 2023

Wes Anderson movies are often described as ‘an acquired taste’ or ‘you’ll love them or hate them’. But I’m not sure that’s entirely true.  

I certainly liked some of them – Moonrise Kingdom and Isle of Dogs say – more than others – Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr Fox maybe. Though I can’t tell you why exactly.

Which brings us to Asteroid City, which I enjoyed rather more than many full-time Wes Anderson fans did. Perhaps it was because so many references were directly aimed at me. Especially the musical and early television ones.

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Photo: Screenshot

Asteroid City is set up as an artificial story, written by a New York playwright for a stagey TV set. The sort of thing they did in 1950s shows like The Richard Boone Show and the more famous Twilight Zone. 

The narrator – Bryan Cranston - appears in monochrome to introduce a colourful story set in Asteroid City, where five Junior Star Gazers and their parents arrive to be handed prizes by General Gibson – Anderson regular Jeffery Wright.

In fact, most of the cast is made up of Anderson favourites, old and new. Joining Wright are other old hands like Jason Schwartzmann, Tilda Swinton and Ed Norton.  

Newer faces include Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks as Jason Schwartzmann’s father in law and the young Faris triplets as Schwartzmann’s daughters.

And it goes without saying that Asteroid City is colourful.  In fact, I kept trying to work out the unique pastel wash that permeates the film. 

But it turns out that’s pretty much what it looks like in the middle of Spain, where the film was shot.

The set was completely built by Anderson and his crew, often in miniature.

Like so many Wes Anderson films – both live action and stop-motion animation – the aesthetic is that of a brilliantly constructed series of doll’s houses or the world’s greatest train set.

But everything about Asteroid City is designed to recapture a half-forgotten period, including the music. Most of it seems to be old-timey American country, but it’s as artificial as the sets – much of it owing more to English skiffle groups than authentic Nashville C & W. 

There’s actually a country group that pops up now and again, featuring faux-cowboys like Brit-pop legend Jarvis Cocker.

Meanwhile the alarmingly talented Junior Star Gazers display their inventions that include a flying jetpack, a botanical accelerant and a death-ray.

Their parents include ‘50s types like a crass business tycoon, an unsuccessful photographer and Hollywood sex symbol Midge Campbell – Johansson of course. She’s filling in time rehearsing her next script, which includes a nude scene.

Asteroid City is not only famed for its historic asteroid, but because a few miles away is the site of regular atomic bomb tests. Cute little mushroom clouds appear on the horizon now and again. Maybe that’s why it’s been chosen for an unexpected guest appearance from outer space.

Asteroid City is as site and period-specific as the early TV play structure, the buttoned-up characters and the Disney Tomorrowland title. I found it strangely nostalgic.

This is the mid ‘50s, ten years after World War II.  The grown-ups all seem to share a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, though in a Anderson film sometimes it’s hard to tell.

The kids on the other hand are the first to be brought up on a diet of TV and nuclear paranoia and are shortly about to invent rock ‘n’ roll and the generation gap.  

No wonder their parents don’t understand them.

And maybe that’s why Anderson’s usual fans – mostly far younger than me – didn’t get it or laugh as loud and often as I did.   

As the toy freight-train puffs to the artificial horizon to the sound of the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, it reflects a decade that – like Anderson’s world – was as conservative on the surface as it was deeply strange underneath it.   

Maybe the ’50s really were the Twilight Zone.

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