Asteroid City proves Wes Anderson can’t be copied, by AI or anyone else

This review of Asteroid City comes from the movie’s premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Expect more on the movie as we get closer to the film’s theatrical opening in June.

Film lovers have never been in danger of mistaking a Wes Anderson movie for anybody else’s work, but he’s only become more distinctive with age. As both a storyteller and a visual stylist, Anderson produces hyper-decorative, deceptively poignant work that’s instantly recognizable. It’s also eye-pleasing enough to have spawned fashion trends, photography books, hit Instagram accounts, and a recent wave of AI-generated art and lifestyle TikTok parodies that offer definitive proof that there’s a huge distance between artistry and algorithm. But even with his trademark twee visual style turned into a ubiquitous part of popular culture, Asteroid City proves there’s still nobody quite like Wes Anderson.

Anderson has been making grand, jubilant, aching, profound films for decades now, but he’s moved away from the naturalistic, heart-on-sleeve sensibility of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. He’s headed to the next level as a filmmaker by focusing on visually opulent flights of fancy. His latest movies — from the Matryoshka doll-nested neo-baroque architecture of The Grand Budapest Hotel to the sparkling jeu d’esprit of The French Dispatch — move away from the modern day and into bygone eras, adding on an extravagant, disarmingly sincere profusion of visual detail.

Asteroid City, his 11th feature, is as dazzlingly ambitious as those movies in its re-creation of the midcentury American Southwest, circa 1955. The desert town of Asteroid City was named for a massive meteor crater and a nearby celestial observatory. It’s a tiny outpost of civilization (population: 87) against the sun-scorched terrain and turquoise skies of the surrounding landscape.

Image: Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

A 12-stool luncheonette, a one-pump filling station, a 10-cabin motor-court hotel, and a telephone booth make up most of the local attractions. Mushroom clouds loom in the distance, as a somber reminder of the era’s nuclear paranoia. Broken-down station wagons and an unfinished off-ramp point to the more bustling settlement that was once planned for the area. But now, most of the traffic — including a government train carrying Pontiacs, pecans, and nuclear warheads — is just passing through.

Asteroid City doesn’t open in this desert town. It starts on a black-and-white studio set, where a Rod Serling-esque host (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) frames the entire movie as a stage play that was never performed, presented by a company of New York stage actors, including the Tennessee Williams-adjacent playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and his leading actors, Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) and Mercedes Ford (Scarlett Johansson). “Asteroid City does not exist,” the host says. “It is an imaginary drama created expressly for this broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication.”

Establishing the American West and New York’s legendary Actors Studio as the corners of mythological Americana hovering just outside the action, Anderson darts back to the desert with the cheek of a roadrunner meep-meeping through the frame. As the frame segment’s boxy aspect ratio opens up into eye-popping widescreen, the main players — including four teenage science prodigies and their families — are convening for the 1955 Junior Stargazer Competition, to be judged by a five-star military general (Jeffrey Wright) and an acclaimed, aloof astronomer (Tilda Swinton, though that might go without saying).

For Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzman), a war photographer still grieving his dead wife, packing his three daughters and brainiac son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) into a wood-sided Mercury Monterey and heading into the desert is a challenge — especially since he hasn’t told the kids about their mother’s death yet. “The time is never right,” he tells his father-in-law (Tom Hanks), who responds in kind, “The time is always wrong.”

A motel manager (Steve Carell) stands in front of a desert motel, wearing a green sunshade and looking into the camera, while two people in pale clothing (Aristou Meehan and Liev Schreiber) stand in the distance behind him in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City

Photo: Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Movie star Midge Campbell (Johansson), meanwhile, is rehearsing for a new role — one of the “tragic, abused alcoholics” she’s known for playing — as she accompanies her stargazer daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards) to Asteroid City. Midge checks into the cabin across from Augie, and they settle into a warm repartee. Elsewhere in town, a teacher (Maya Hawke) struggles to corral her young pupils while a handsome cowpoke (Rupert Friend) makes eyes in her direction. And the motel owner (Steve Carell) genially acknowledges every complaint his lodgers lob his way.

Anderson’s ensemble casts are at this point as synonymous with his style as any of his visual trademarks, and every actor here is in step with his eccentric dialogue. Schwartzman, a regular in Anderson movies since the Rushmore days, gets the spotlight with Asteroid City, and he nails that sly, quintessentially Andersonian blend of humor and melancholy. The script (written by Anderson, with filmmaker Roman Coppola co-credited for the story) ranks highly among his most poignant and pointillist-precise work.

As the Stargazer Convention begins and is disrupted and delayed, Anderson strikes a balance between the central action in the desert and the dramatic challenges that the New York theater company faces in portraying it accurately. Jones finds Augie’s grief unfathomable, wondering out loud, “Am I doing him right?” But that sensation of being lost in the role is part of what brings him closer to something resembling the truth.

Anderson’s ingenious framing device, which has actors playing actors playing actors, sets all these characters against each other in ways that boost Asteroid City, turning it into something richer than the perfectly amiable desert charmer that the trailers convey. Anderson is focusing on the great cosmic mysteries of existence — some in outer space, some terrestrial, and based in human emotion. His recent films have made it clear that he’s a richly philosophical filmmaker, and that he enjoys studying his artistic preoccupations from a distance — through the fog of memory in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and by turning storytelling itself into a subject in The French Dispatch.

In a very dim room, a group of young people (Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Ethan Josh Lee, Aristou Meehan, and Sophia Lillis) stand around an old-timey radio covered with lights and dials in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City

Photo: Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Anderson’s signature pastel color palette, obsessively symmetrical compositions, and swirling layers of artifice open up entire worlds in miniature. His carefully designed and constructed movie dioramas often collapse the distance between cinema, theater, and other visual art forms, like the “living pictures” that preceded radio. Across their longtime collaboration, he and cinematographer Robert Yeoman have rewritten the rules of the rapid tracking shot: It’s difficult to think of any other filmmaker who pans and tilts the camera with his level of refinement and deadpan wit.

Anderson’s films are just as distinctive in their emotional thrust. The characters are fantastical, but their draw toward escapism and adventure is deeply felt, and it comes with a strong sense of whimsical wonder. His exotic locales make his stories seem like familiar, distant dreams. Nostalgia is at the heart of Asteroid City just as much as it’s been in his past films, even though the imaginative design is so much more fanciful than actual history.

Anderson keeps rapidly advancing as a filmmaker, making his worlds more exaggerated and artificial with each new project, while gently inviting his audience to accept the universality of his characters’ emotions. With Asteroid City, he’s conveying something essential about the role of artistic creation and re-creation, of art itself — particularly in the way it helps people process trauma and the unexpected. In his view, art lets us understand what we can, and accept what we cannot. It’s enjoyable on the surface level, but it’s also a layered existential poem. It’s Wes Anderson at his most mature and magical — and at his most singular, in a way no one else can capture — especially not AI.

Asteroid City will open in limited theatrical release in America on June 16, and in wide release on June 23.