Asteroid City

Asteroid City Review

Being labelled as an ‘auteur’ must be a lonely existence. There are expectations, and it’s assumed you will adhere to a style, a theme, a trope, and that you will deliver. This can become alienating, challenging, and even irritating.

For an artist whose films are brimming with life, character, and collaboration, Wes Anderson, as a person and not just a filmmaker, has always been somewhat of a mystery. Recently, he requested that people stop sending him memes, TikToks, videos, and other ephemera that parody his style and his approach, that apply his trademarks to non-Wes Andersony themes, genres, and characters. He was cool about it, if a little hurt. It was the least dramatic drama one could imagine with an established director.

Tw0 years after his last picture, The French Dispatch, Anderson has once again delivered a cinematic treat in the form of Asteroid City, a smorgasbord for the eyes, the ears, and the funny bone. And it is extraordinary.

If you care at all about film, you have no doubt heard about the A+ ensemble that Anderson has assembled here. From frequent collaborators (including a best-ever Jason Schwartzman), to a smattering of newcomers (in non-animated form, at least, including a pitch-perfect Scarlett Johansson), they are all exceptional, occupying their roles—and Anderson’s universe—with aplomb. It would be impossible to sing all of their praises, but just know they all do a very good job.


The plot of the film is fairly simple: a large group of people—families, school children, curious onlookers—head to the titular Asteroid City, a minuscule town at the base (top?) of a 5000 year old crater made by an asteroid (or is it a meteorite?). There, five brainiacs (as they are called in the film) take part in a Junior Stargazers convention, which honours them for their intellect and inventiveness. The others are there to cheer them on, support them, and view an astronomical phenomenon (an eclipse of some sort, possibly Lunar). It burns retinas. One kid makes a death ray. There are close encounters of the obvious kind. It’s all pretty zany.

Conversely, the structure of the film is a bit more complex. Asteroid City is entirely metatextual because “Asteroid City” is a play, presented as a movie, performed on a television show. While the main plot concerns the events in Asteroid City, the television program is a behind-the-scenes view of the creation of said play, detailing its writing and rehearsal. Edward Norton plays a Tennessee Williams-esque scribe, while Adrien Brody plays the chiseled director.

These two sections—the widescreen and in-colour play-as-film portion, and the black and white, academy ratio rehearsal/writing portion— are seamlessly and hilariously intertwined. Characters jump between the two styles, depending on what they need or who they want to interact with. At one point, our monochromatic narrator, Bryan Cranston, suddenly appears in the technicolor Asteroid City. He’s lost. It’s a looney trip. There are also references to Looney Tunes. A road runner appears. It’s just great fun.

Asteroid City is undoubtedly one of Anderson’s most beautiful films, and certainly his most Spielbergian, with its unapologetic references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Anderson’s own Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is also in Asteroid City’s meta-DNA: the fourth wall has been cut, the proscenium breached, and the messy inner workings revealed. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography is, of course, gorgeous, perpetually warm, and immaculately dusty. The desert plains and red rock mountains (think Monument Valley) are clearly very firmly rooted in the Myth of John Ford; it’s as close to a Wes Anderson Western™️ as we’ll probably ever get.


Made during the COVID-19 pandemic, Asteroid City is also unsurprisingly (or, perhaps for some viewers, surprisingly) one of Anderson’s most overtly political films. It comments on a multitude of ills and worries many of us have struggled with or faced in the last three years, including the irresponsible—and frankly absurd—ubiquity of guns and weaponry; the commercialization of trauma; oppressive governmental action and intervention; immigration; America’s propensity for violence; death, grief, and of course, the pandemic itself. Anderson’s thematic overindulgence stretches some of the topics a bit thin, and he’s not always successful in tackling each subject, but alas, such is Anderson’s maximalist style. He’s not saccharine or overly sentimental about emotions, feelings, or quirks, so why would his approach to social and political topics be any different? While some may find this a bit wearisome, avoidant, or even obtuse, it seems that Anderson took the criticism he received for The French Dispatch—which some commentators and reviewers considered “not political enough”—to heart.

While not his best film, Asteroid City sees Wes Anderson transitioning into a state of commentary. While naysayers will inevitably find the film trite, sexless, and uninitiated, Asteroid City sees the writer/director in an uncharacteristically volatile space, still very funny yet clearly disillusioned by the state of his country. The film sees Anderson grappling with the absurdity and pain of what the pandemic brought, not just in terms of ‘Life in Quarantine’, but the paranoia, opportunism, and trauma that came with it. Yet, at its core, Asteroid City is not bitter or cynical. Instead, it is about connection, about our ability and need to connect, even in the most trying and isolating of times. It is about our fragile place in the world, about the stars and the heavens, science and religion, life and death, humour and hurt. It is about so many things all at once because that’s just how life is, a cacophony of feelings, moments, and experiences. The Theatre of Life!

Most importantly, Asteroid City is about hope. Because there is always hope. Sometimes, that’s the most sincere and human message a film can deliver.

Asteroid City is in theatres now.

Catch Senior Critic Pat Mullen’s dive into Asteroid City and metatheatre and Jason Gorber’s video review straight from Cannes 2023.