After the cacophonously tedious tapestry of The French Dispatch, it was easy to become an Anderson-sceptic. He was a filmmaker to admire rather than love, to appreciate rather than go crazy for. The blank faces, stunted deliveries and symmetrical visuals weathered into formalistic irritations that recycled the same atmospheres again and again. But Asteroid City resurrects the dormant appeal for the kooky auteur who made Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom.
Bryan Cranston as Host. Photo: Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
The film starts in black-and-white with a 4:3 frame. With the direct-to-camera flourish of The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, Bryan Cranston introduces a new stage play. Edward Norton, as the playwright Conrad Earp, reads out the dramatis personae of his latest work. Anderson brings Conrad's play to life in wide Panavision with an attractive pastel palette: composing a train in an American desert. You watch the story as it’s being constructed, the narrative bifurcated between fabrication and behind-the-scenes madness.
The titular location hosts the 1955 Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention, embracing genius astronomy students and their families to participate in a competition. The ‘city’ with a population of 87 contains a diner, communal showers, puppeteered birds, a motel, a military base, a ramp that leads to nowhere, a vending machine that sells plots of land, and a substantial crater in which the convention takes place.
Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck and Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak. Photo: Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
As always, Anderson creates an extensive and eclectic cast of characters – they're not always gripping, but they provide constant, idiosyncratic charm. At the centre is Jason Schwartzman as the widowed father and war photographer Augie Steenbeck. His son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) has entered the competition, inventing a way to project images onto the moon (in this case: the American flag).
Also dotted around are a teacher (Maya Hawke), a scientist (Tilda Swinton), a mechanic (Matt Dillon), the motel manager (Steve Carell), an army general (Jeffrey Wright), a golfing grandfather (Tom Hanks) and an actress (Scarlett Johansson) who wields the Hitchcockian mannerisms of Janet Leigh.
Sci-fi phrases like ‘interstellar advertising’ and ‘electromagnetic death ray’ whirl into the film's rapid currents of conversation, leading to an extraterrestrial catalyst. Subsequently, this postwar community – where atom bombs are being tested nearby – is thrown into further political chaos.
Anderson loses his sanity in a panicked final act, as if baffled by how to conclude each story. This uncertainty is echoed in the writing, when (towards the end) one of the black-and-white stage characters admits, ‘I still don’t understand the play’.
However, despite the flawed climaxes, Asteroid City maintains magnetic eccentricity and charismatic humour – even dipping into the Python-esque (you can imagine Graham Chapman in Cranston’s 'Host' role). This critic won’t lament leaving any of the characters behind (except the Alien, who is a treat), but this well-photographed world is a bizarre, entertaining and multitudinous escape.
Asteroid City will be in UK cinemas on Friday 23 June.
|What||Asteroid City review|
23 Jun 23 – 23 Jun 24, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|