Welcome to Asteroid City, population 87. The setting for Wes Anderson’s latest comic confection is a desert town on the California/Nevada border. With plots of land for sale, it’s still only half-built. This is the 1950s, after all. But it’s where Anderson’s latest coterie of characters gather – and are held against their will somewhat – after a close encounter of the curious kind. Yes, Asteroid City is the closest Anderson has come to making a sci-fi movie, though you probably shouldn’t expect The Mandalorian.
Arriving underneath these bright blue skies is Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a photographer more used to conflict zones (although we do see atom bomb testing going on in the background). A father-of-four – three young girls and an older son (Jake Ryan) – he’s dealing with the worst thing in the world. His wife, the kids’ mother, has just died. On his way to help is father-in-law (Tom Hanks), but for the moment he has to somehow console the children on his own.
Meanwhile, Asteroid City is playing host to a Junior Stargazer / Space Cadet convention, as parents and their bright spark kids all come together from across the nation. Among those who stop by is Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who loves to play tragic figures. Maya Hawke is a teacher overseeing a posse of kids. And Rupert Friend is a cowboy named Montana (also playing Stetson-wearers in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them parts are Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker and Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, who first worked with Anderson on 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou performing David Bowie covers in Portuguese).
Just to throw you, the events taking place in Asteroid City are actually all part of a teleplay. While these unfold in colour, there are some monochrome segments, where we meet the playwright (Edward Norton) and even a suited-and-booted narrator (Bryan Cranston), who keeps us abreast of everything. Full marks here to Anderson’s regular team, especially director of photography Robert Yeoman and production designer Adam Stockhausen, who give these scenes the sheen of a classic 1950s Hollywood movie – like a Billy Wilder tale, perhaps.
With the American government and scientific community represented (in the play) by Jeffrey Wright (as a general) and Tilda Swinton (as a boffin), it all gets very strange when this community receive an extraterrestrial visitor. It’s not quite Area 51, but Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola have great fun with the idea, channeling 1950s B-movie vibes. Like all of Anderson’s work, it’s very affectionate, even if every camera move appears to have been calculated with the precision of a mathematical equation.
The Anderson faithful will certainly be rewarded by a lush-looking film and a cast so big, there hasn’t even been time to mention Margot Robbie, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum. Suffice it to say, Anderson has swelled the ranks of his rep company even more. Best of all, Jason Schwartzman – now on his seventh Anderson movie – gets a juicy role for his favourite director. Seeing the two of them together again feels like perfect harmony.