“Asteroid City” is a visual feat of a movie with little in the way of substance, in fact, this might be the most contrived Wes Anderson film I’ve watched. Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Liev Schreiber and Adrien Brody star in it, which adds heft but the photography is helliciously rendered in saturated pastels and so it’s weird.
This film brought a sense of emptiness in me. During its two hours’ running time, a string of affected characters, three young girls and their father (Jason Schwartzman), an actress (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter–noone smiles much–end up willy-nilly in a small desert town but not just any desert town. This hamlet (population 87, if memory serves), the “Asteroid City” of the title, is where the U.S. army conducts nuclear tests. People arrive and stay at the local motel, managed by a man (Steve Carell) who wears a green visor on his head and says “I understand” a lot, they eat waffles at the diner and make each other’s acquaintance, waiting for the quarantine to be lifted.
The visitors come to Asteroid City as part of a stargazers convention. This is also the site where some “5,000 years ago” a meteorite fell to the earth, leaving a crater, which makes Asteroid City a place of interest.
“Asteroid City” is also a play, this particular device of the film, useless, as far as I can tell–just the movie on its own would’ve been enough, enough for what, I’m not sure–is belabored over throughout the film by a man in black and white played by Bryan Cranston, his hair neat with the right amount of gel and his voice ominous. Consequential events are going to here take place, we’re meant to believe–they don’t.
A contingent from the army base nearby, led by General Grif Gibson (Geoffrey Wright), gathers all the stargazers for a science fair. Prizes are given away, teenaged inventors showcase their scientific experiments, a projector that flashes images unto the stars, a new element that will be entered into the period chart of elements, a weapon that shoots laser beams.
“Asteroid City” is a peek into a new room of Wes Anderson’s mind. And the room looks a lot like the other rooms before it, it’s decorated the same, the furniture is familiar and there are a lot of bizarre objects from a difrerent era. No wit, or real attempt at humor either, in this room. But it’s fun to look at, for a minute. Wes Anderson’s taste, his determinism and his culture cannot be faulted but his film, others before it, might be for an audience of devotees only.