‘Asteroid City’ Is A Hopeful Gaze Into Infinity (Cannes Review)

Wes Anderson’s latest is a gorgeous ‘50s-set Russian doll of a movie about the wonder and the terror of the “cosmic wilderness.”
Asteroid City

This article is part of our coverage of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. In this entry, Farah Cheded reviews Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City.

At one point in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) describes the play he’s working on as “about infinity.” That’s also an apt description for Anderson’s film, which has an ouroboros-like structure: it begins as a television show about the making of Conrad’s play (also called “Asteroid City”), only for this nested structure to soon collapse in on itself and go full meta, with characters violating the framing device’s boundaries as they wonder at their place in it all. Like the play it’s centered around, this is a movie about the occasionally paralyzing anxiety and surreality of staring into the “cosmic wilderness,” both physical (i.e. outer space) and metaphysical. 

The setting for Asteroid City’s smallest matryoshka doll (the play) is the titular town, a tiny desert outpost, and an atom bomb-testing site so named for the meteor that struck it 5000 years ago. The play is set during one week in 1955 — the year the starter pistol sounded on the Space Race — when a Junior Stargazers’ Convention is being held to recognize the country’s youngest and most brilliant inventors. One such kid genius is Woodrow (Eighth Grade’s Jake Ryan), who’s being honored for his invention of an “interstellar advertising” device that can project “universal messages” like the US flag onto the Moon for all the world (but probably mainly the USSR) to see. Woodrow is accompanied by his three younger sisters and their war photojournalist father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), who is so paralyzed by grief that he hasn’t yet found the right moment to inform the kids about the death of their mother. When they eventually learn of their bereavement, the kids movingly grapple with it as a confrontation between finality and infinity, guided by their stoic yet warm grandfather Stanley (fresh Anderson recruit Tom Hanks).

Also being honored at the Convention is Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards), with whom Woodrow falls into a world-shattering Moonrise Kingdom-style first romance that has a deeply moving impact on the grandiose plans he has for his invention. Dinah is in town with her mother Midge (Scarlett Johansson), a slightly pretentious actor who, in trying to get into the spirit of her next role, walks around with a painted-on black eye because her character “has one on the inside.” As with Augie, there’s a deep well of melancholy in Midge. Just as their kids strike up a connection, she has a rousing effect on him — her professional dexterity with emotion being the example this terrified widower needs to uncork his bottled feelings and face an uncertain future.

Scarlett Johansson in director Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

The Steenbecks and Campbells are joined in Asteroid City by a very Andersonian brochette of personalities that includes the town’s resident soldiers (Jeffrey Wright and Tony Revolori), scientists (Tilda Swinton), cowboys (Rupert Friend), extraterrestrials, and locals (Steve Carell and Matt Dillon). Some of the play’s actors also do double duty playing themselves behind the scenes of Conrad’s drama: Schwartzman, for example, is also actor Jones Hall, who is so tortured by the role of Augie that he breaks character to walk through a set door and consult the play’s director, Schubert (Adrien Brody). In perhaps the film’s thesis statement, Schubert tells Jones that it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t understand the play — he just has to keep going.

Thankfully, it’s easy to keep our grip on all this meta-ness because Asteroid City establishes a clear visual delineation between the play-within-the-TV show and the show itself. In contrast to the New York City-set making-of scenes — which are narrated by a somber television host (Bryan Cranston) and mostly shot in a boxy black and white 4:3 aspect ratio — cinematographer Robert Yeoman shoots the play’s scenes in glorious sun-bleached widescreen reminiscent of Kodachrome, the film stock Paul Simon wistfully sang of as making “you think all the world’s a sunny day.”

The sense of nostalgia doesn’t end here: Adam Stockhausen’s production design, Julie Dartnell’s hair and makeup, and Milena Canonero’s costume teams make our immersion into the period a satisfyingly exhaustive one. In particular, the work of the latter two departments makes winking references to iconic images of the era like James Dean, Kim Novak a la Vertigo, and a wifebeater-clad Marlon Brando. Asteroid City’s tongue-in-cheek callbacks even extend to the characters’ names, which Anderson has seemingly arrived at by throwing a history book into a blender (examples: Woodrow Lindbergh Steenbeck, Asquith Eden, and Mercedes Ford). What’s more, before Asteroid City turns anachronistically meta, it’s even structured like a product of its time, with credits rolling at the beginning (rather than the end) of the film and stylized intertitles alerting us to the beginning of new acts and an optional intermission.

As is a given with all of Anderson’s films, the visual pleasures are many in Asteroid City and demand a repeat viewing to be fully appreciated (particularly Stockhausen’s marvelous work, which is full of mischievous detail). What’s more contentious is the substance of all this style.

This might not be the film to resolve that debate with any finality: if anything, Anderson is digging his heels in on his idiosyncratic approach to emotion here, and some of the poignancy that does emerge is nevertheless diffused by the film having such a sprawling tangle of characters. In another way, though, Asteroid City might have what it takes to convert Anderson’s non-believers. Its exploration of the existential angst that plagues all of his characters (and us) is never more direct than it is here. Asteroid City’s two-pronged approach to evoking the wonder and the terror of infinity (entwining the scientific with the spiritual) also makes its horizons feel more expansive than those of Anderson’s other films. What’s more, it’s hard not to see something of ourselves in its doom-and-boom setting — or, crucially, to take heart from its defiant centering of love, connection, curiosity, and moving forward no matter what.

Asteroid City begins its theatrical release on June 16, 2023. Watch the film’s trailer here.

Farah Cheded: Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.