Movie review: 'Asteroid City' collapses under Wes Anderson style

Scarlett Johansson plays Midge Campbell in "Asteroid City." Photo courtesy of Pop 87 Productions/Focus Features
1 of 5 | Scarlett Johansson plays Midge Campbell in "Asteroid City." Photo courtesy of Pop 87 Productions/Focus Features

LOS ANGELES, June 14 (UPI) -- The idiosyncratic style of Wes Anderson means that most audiences know by now whether they will respond to his movies. Unfortunately, even for the devout, Asteroid City, in theaters Friday, represents the nadir of Anderson's whimsy.

The film begins with a host (Bryan Cranston) introducing playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Earp's play, Asteroid City, unfolds as a film, occasionally cutting back to Earp and the stage production.


In the main story, several families converge in Asteroid City, where a Junior Stargazer convention is interrupted by an actual alien. After the sighting, Gen. Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) keeps the attendees in town under quarantine.

Anderson's style is already akin to live theater. He favors static shots composed symmetrically, only moving the camera laterally if he chooses to move it at all.


His dialogue takes on a theatrical effect, emphasizing whimsical turns of phrase over the way people actually converse.

That style works for family dramas like The Royal Tenenbaums and Darjeeling Limited, action fantasies like The Life Aquatic or Grand Budapest Hotel, animated films like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs or the anthology The French Dispatch.

Asteroid City feels like Anderson is now so pot committed to his style, he's forcing it onto a thin story. The desperation is not a good look.

Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johanson) is a movie star. While quarantined, she rehearses scenes for an upcoming film with August Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a recent widower with three children.

Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) is August's father-in-law, who offers to take custody of his grandchildren. June Douglas (Maya Hawke) is a teacher overwhelmed by an entire class of Junior Stargazers.

The audience must be patient for the introductions of these and many, many more characters in the ensemble. The second half of the film becomes even more tedious once it becomes clear the characters aren't going to deal with any of the issues they've set up.

J. J. Kellogg (Liev Schreiber) has a son who keeps asking people to dare him to do dangerous things, which he does, anyway. When J.J. asks his son what's the cause or meaning of his behavior, he could be asking for the point of the whole movie.


If the point is that the presence of aliens renders human dramas minor, they were minor long before the alien showed up. Considering many characters are coping with grief, it shouldn't be hard to make mourning feel significant, and yet Asteroid City does not.

Conversely, if the point is that our problems still matter in the grand scheme of things, the film only explores its characters superficially.

Anderson directs his actors to speak fast whether they deliver long speeches or banter back and forth, but saying it faster doesn't add depth to Midge anticipating her own demise or Gibson's elaborate list of rules.

If not talking fast, characters stare silently as if they're pondering something more meaningful than the film has provided.

August has waited three weeks to tell his children their mom actually died of cancer. That's a drama that warrants further exploration, but even that goes nowhere beyond suggesting that talking about death is hard so some people put it off.

Midge and August have a fleeting relationship while they're stuck in town together, and it truly feels fleeting, as it doesn't seem to matter to either of them. No one expects a movie to answer the big questions of life, but Asteroid City barely even bothers to ask them.


The thinness of the plot becomes evident when Asteroid City wastes time having the host, screenwriter and other backstage characters interact with the action of the play. It's not a meta commentary on the artifice of theater or film when the film already is artificial.

Though more vast than the proscenium of the theater stage, the location of Asteroid City still looks like an artificial backdrop even when it's outside. Backdrops and artificial rocks are fine, but it feels like a disproportionate amount of effort went into the setting at the expense of the characters.

The bright colors suggest uniform costume and production design, not the variety of clothing a random group of people actually might display.

The convention attendees stay at a generic motel with equally generic vending machines lined up that sell milk, toiletries, soda and even real estate. One subplot is the motel manager (Steve Carell) selling plots of land so small they'd be of no use to anyone.

The alien is animated via stop motion, and many of the kids have invented entries for the Stargazer contest. The prospects of kids with jetpacks and laser beams only provides occasional breaks in the monotony.


Late in the film, a scene takes on the aesthetics of an avant-garde European art film. At that point, Asteroid City is just grasping for other people's styles, since its own couldn't even hold itself together.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks attend 'Asteroid City' premiere in NYC

Scarlett Johansson arrives on the red carpet for the premiere of "Asteroid City" in New York City on June 13, 2023. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/UPI | License Photo

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