If there is any director who you can see one frame of their work and identify their style, it’s Wes Anderson. Obsessed with rich and colorful palettes, symmetry, detailed sets, and costume design, Anderson’s films often look like they’ve been plucked out of a storybook. In the auteur’s latest entry, Asteroid City, we journey to a fictional 1955 in the middle of the Southwest desert in America. In typical Anderson fashion, we have a whole ensemble of characters and multiple storylines all bundled up in his immaculate packaging.

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‘Asteroid City’ Takes on a Different Form of Storytelling

Images via Focus Features

What first stands out when watching Asteroid City is the fact that the actual story we’re watching in the desert is a fictional play put on by actors. In other words, the film employs a narrative frame where each of the characters are also playing the part in a play. Visually, Anderson differentiates this by showing us the non-play elements in black-and-white. The characters have different accents, personalities, and names.

Perhaps if this was given more time to marinate, the concept would have been smoother in execution. But given the massive cast we must keep up with, the frame characters end up muddying the waters. It disturbs the flow of the story in Asteroid City, even if it is where we see actors like Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, and Hong Chau flourish. Anderson is known for his large ensemble casts, but it feels that perhaps he’s stretched himself a bit too thin with Asteroid City.

‘Asteroid City’ Lacks the Depth of Emotion of Anderson’s Classics

MIdge Campbell, played by actress Scarlett Johansson, in Asteroid City
Image via Focus Features

While Wes Anderson is undoubtedly a very aesthetic director, his strengths also lie in being able to subtle tell stories filled with emotion. The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Moonrise Kingdom are all examples of his stories that not only incorporate his signature aesthetic style but his signature storytelling style. Oftentimes he mixes quirkiness with dysfunction and melancholy with dark humor. There might be some that call Anderson’s filmmaking shallow but a closer look at his best works show that every story he creates is multilayered.

Perhaps it’s because there is so much to juggle in Asteroid City — massive cast, two different storylines, a sci-fi element — but there are times when the film is aimless. It meanders from subplot to subplot. We go from Augie’s (Jason Schwartzman) struggle to deal with a big change in his family to his blossoming romance with actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) to a surprising arrival by a benign alien. Augie and Midge clearly have the lion’s share of character development, though their story gets dwarfed by the arrival of the alien. I almost wonder if it’s time for Wes Anderson to make the jump from film to television so he is allowed to develop and accentuate these detailed characters.

Wes Anderson’s Style Is on Full Display in ‘Asteroid City’

The official release poster for Asteroid City, Wes Anderson's latest film
Image via Focus Features

While the narrative has its cracks, the visual aesthetic and appearance of Asteroid City is completely flawless. The beautiful pastels of a Sonoran desert are mixed with the little whimsical touches that Anderson so likes to include in his films. An on-ramp built that goes nowhere, a motor home park with one burned down cabin, a romance between two people talking to each other from their windows. He cares about the details and it shows. As the stunning azure blue sky turns into a yellow and pink sunset, it’s hard to look at Asteroid City and not want to simply fall into this seemingly immaculate world.

This might be Anderson’s most beautiful film. Between the looks behind the scenes in a grittier theater stage to the clean and simple beauty of the desert, there’s little clutter, only clean lines. And when he includes the alien element, that too is done in a careful stylistic way. When the UFO arrives, it bathes the group in a neon green glow, with the awkward little alien looking totally unthreatening and meek. It’s a moment played for laughs that’s based completely off of physical comedy.

If you like Wes Anderson, Asteroid City is right up your alley. This is more of what you already love, and it’s fun to see new actors join Anderson in his cast of familiar collaborators. Actors like Maya Hawke or Margot Robbie or Steve Carell have been Anderson-ified and slot perfectly into his little world. Even if you might be scratching your head at the end of the movie wondering, “What was the point of this?” it still stands head and shoulders above so many films that do the bare minimum compared to the amount of thought that Anderson puts into his films.

Rating: B

Asteroid City had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will release in theaters starting June 23.

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