The pandemic utterly destroyed moviegoing for me over the past few years, so Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (2023) is the first film I’ve seen on the big screen since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. If that was a disappointing way to leave the theaters, I can’t think of a more glorious way to return to them. Asteroid City may be the most Wes Andersony film that Wes Anderson has ever Wes Andersoned, a cartoonish, period science fiction comedy full of kooky throwback imagery and a barely detectable background radiation of modern doomsday angst. It doesn’t necessarily make a ton of narrative sense, but its moments are brilliant and the overall journey is delightful.
Set in the mid-fifties, the plot revolves around an unlikely gathering of eccentric characters in an even less likely place: Asteroid City, a desert crossroads in the American west, notable only as the site of a major meteor strike. Consisting of a diner, a motor lodge, and a scientific research base, Asteroid City’s meager population receives a jolt when a busload of bright young astronomy students arrives for a stargazing convention. Into this mix stumbles Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a combat photographer and widower, who is on his way to deliver his children to the estate of his father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks). When car troubles force the family to take refuge in the lodge, they’re stranded just long enough to witness a mysterious cosmic event—and for Augie to fall for famous movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who is in town escorting her daughter to the conference.
On paper it doesn’t seem all that complex, but it’s far weirder than it sounds, a story-within-a-story-within-a-story—or, more specifically, a play within a TV documentary within a movie. And somehow it manages to feel like all those things: talky, stagey, cinematic, a multimedia Dagwood sandwich. (Throw “animated” into the mix; there’s even an uncanny, CGI roadrunner, contributing an old Warner Bros. cartoon vibe.) Of course, Anderson’s MO has long involved convening all-star casts in quirky interaction. Asteroid City turns this approach up to eleven. It bottles its massive, incredible roster—Adrien Brody, Hong Chau, Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Willem Dafoe, Hope Davis, Rupert Friend, Sophia Lillis, Edward Norton, Jake Ryan, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, and on and on and on—in a deeply quirky retro-future, primarily in the interest of recombining them in clever scenes of breezy, silly banter. Oh, there’s a plot, of sorts, mostly involving the central, understated romance between Augie and Midge, and the cosmic mystery that ties the stranded community temporarily together. This plot washes past like a wave, and given the isolated location, atomic age dread, and subdued sense of grief permeating the affair, it’s hard not to imagine this one having been influenced by the pandemic—or at least reflecting a subliminal response to it. Which isn’t to say the film is sad or grim; in fact, it’s a strikingly bright, upbeat experience. But there’s a hint of existentialism baked into it, the sense that life is an unknowable, cosmic confusion. The film hints at many possible interpretations, and its message isn’t always coherent, but the takeaway I seized on was that, in times of grief, dread, and fear for the future, stories are a healthy way to cope and process. That core feeling, combined with the gorgeous production and the still-lingering smile it brought to my face throughout, leaves me convinced Asteroid City is Anderson’s comic masterpiece.