Cannes 2023: Wes Anderson's Desert Trip to Downbeat 'Asteroid City'

May 24, 2023

Asteroid City Review

I'm not usually a fan of writing a review while admitting that I haven't fully figured out the film and need to analyze and discuss it further. However, I need to get my thoughts out about this one – and something is bothering me about the film anyway that I need to get off my chest. WTF is going on in this film?! I've been a Wes Anderson fan for as long as I can remember, with my personal faves being Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I was not particularity fond of The French Dispatch, which premiered at Cannes 2021, it's just too dense and loquacious for me. Anderson's latest creation premiering in Cannes is a strange sci-fi drama called Asteroid City, set in the 1950s following an ensemble of eccentric characters stuck in this fictional desert town. It has all the usual quaint, delectable Wes Anderson ingredients thrown in – from precise camera movements to distinctly vibrant set design to off-beat characters delivering lines without skipping a beat. However, this one didn't turn out. There's just something oddly dispirited about it…

Asteroid City is written and directed by Wes Anderson, from a story by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, and it was filmed on giant sets in Spain in late 2021 (during the pandemic). The film introduces us to a huge cast of oddball characters who stumble into a desolate desert town in the middle of nowhere for a "Junior Stargazer" event. There is crater and leftover meteor located in the middle of town, where the nerdy event takes place and a group of kids are given prizes for their scientific ingenuity. However, while all of them are gathered one evening, they have their own close encounter with an extraterrestrial that pays them a brief visit. In addition to this setup in this town, the entire film is framed within a meta narrative setup as a play called "Asteroid City" – which is just a reference to what we're watching when it flips back over to the main storyline. Bryan Cranston stars as the narrator in a B&W television presentation of a program allowing us a glimpse into the process of creating and putting on a theatrical performance. Why does this film need this device? What does it add? What's the point? I have no idea. I don't think anyone does besides Wes himself.

The rest of the movie is surprisingly dull. It's an extremely strange, low-key, nerdy alien encounter parable about… grief? That's want some other critics are saying. I don't buy it. Grief is only a small part of the film, and so much of what happens is irrelevant and unrelated to grief or loss. Jason Schwartzman plays the main character, a photographer who shows up in town with four kids in tow (one smart boy, and three more young girls). At the start he discusses how he lost someone recently, but this isn't brought up in a way that connects with the rest of the narrative. It's the most confounding Wes Anderson film yet. So many weird characters, so many scenes that seem lifeless. There isn't even much of a score, only one light track tossed in a few times, which is unusual for Anderson. What happened? Why did he make these choices this time? This was made during the pandemic, and there are many times where I thought - is this another dumb pandemic parable about how it's all just a government cover up and lockdowns are bogus and we all need to wake up? I certainly hope not. But I can't really tell after this initial viewing – it's really hard to make any sense of this.

As a huge sci-fi geek myself, I had high hopes for this – but I could not vibe with it at all. I only enjoyed the set design and the beautifully bright world he created for us to inhabit at Asteroid City (all the nerdy stuff is super cool). The rest of it is bewildering and uninteresting and dare I say: boring. There is no energy, no real narrative, no emotions on display, with a wonky meta structure that disrupts the flow. If Wes let the film be this Asteroid City adventure without this framing device of the play, I could've enjoyed this slightly more. However, all the title cards and flips back to Cranston's narration on this TV show completely ruined the experience of the main storyline in Asteroid City. It's almost as if he shot this afterwards and added because the rest of the film makes no sense and he got worried and then decided to try to explain it with the meta structure. There's even a point in the film where one of the characters pauses the story to say "I don't know what this is about" and they all joke about how no one does, and how it is meant to be an experience. It's funny but it's also literally the film itself coming to a screeching halt to blurt out to the audience "we don't know what is going on in this either." Every explanation I've seen for what this means reads like nonsense.

The only interesting result is – whether or not anyone likes the film, it is absolutely stirring up discussions and arguments and conversations among Cannes viewers. Which is usually a very good thing when it comes to cinema. The worst situation for any film is if it's instantly forgotten, no one wants to talk about it or think about it ever again. Asteroid City, even with all its oddities, is still being intensely debated and discussed by many critics in Cannes contemplating both whether they liked it and what the story is saying. Everyone has a different interpretation. Maybe my initial impression of what it's all about is entirely wrong. Maybe there isn't even supposed to be an explanation? One of the themes it brings up is this idea of cosmic ambiguity - we don't yet understand many things in this vast universe we exist in. Their encounter with this alien may or may not have importance to the plot. Everyone's connection to the film seems to be different. Perhaps it is about grief? Perhaps it is about loneliness? Perhaps it is about being unsure of your place in the universe? Perhaps it is just about the pandemic and government lockdowns? Perhaps it is about all of this and more?

Alex's Cannes 2023 Rating: 4 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd - @firstshowing

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