Wes Anderson keeps chugging along, doing his thing. His typical, peculiar, and recognizable style made him an audience favorite for a while, that same signature style is now turning against him. Fans are starting to tire, while those that didn't like Anderson in the first place are becoming more vocal about their unfavorable opinions. Asteroid City is Anderson's latest, and a somewhat simpler film (narratively speaking) compared to his recent outings. While his style is not as unique or dazzling as it once was, Anderson's wit and attention to visual detail make this film another easy favorite for me.
Anderson is an anomaly in the current film climate. His films are extremely stylized, they're full of goofy characters and they are peculiarly scripted. There's nothing natural about his oeuvre and the quirkiness on display is the main attraction, rather than plot or empathic characters. It's a niche that is terribly out of vogue, yet A-list actors are begging to be part of Anderson's universe and audiences are substantial enough to warrant sizeable theater releases. I'm not complaining, but it makes me wonder why other/similar directors are finding it so hard to strike gold.
In recent years, Anderson's films have become more complex and convoluted, The French Dispatch being the most extreme example to date. Considering the stylistic overload that is already present, I think it has started to detract from the experience rather than add to it, so I was happy to find that Astroid City is a return to a simpler era. The narrative is still pretty haphazard and disjointed, but at least there's a pretty straightforward story that moves forward without too many detours. It makes it a little easier to appreciate the kooky characters and visual finesse.
Asteroid City is a little town in the middle of the desert. An asteroid crater is their main tourist attraction, but it's not really doing much for the local economy. Fate unites several visitors as they end up in Asteroid City for various reasons. They'll all be staying a lot longer than they planned when an alien visits the town and steals their tiny asteroid. The army swoops in and puts the town under quarantine. None of the visitors is allowed to leave, so they try to make the best of the situation. Easier said than done, in such a small town, with the army tracking your every move.
Anderson's aesthetic qualities have become his main selling point, and Asteroid City doesn't disappoint. It's nothing you haven't seen from him before, and I sometimes wonder if and when it'll start to wear thin, but there's no one out there doing what Anderson does, and that's a real boon. The orange/blue pastels are vivid and overpowering, the lines and framing are meticulous, and the editing is snappy and minute. Every frame is a joy to behold and it's utterly impressive how Anderson manages to keep the quality and detail high for an entire film.
The audio is perfectly in tune with the visuals but isn't quite as captivating or impressive. When you pay attention to the music (and various sound effects) you'll quickly notice no bleep or twang is out of place. Even so, the sound keeps a back seat to the cinematography at all times. I think Anderson has the potential to do better here, by letting the score have some moments of its own and creating more scenes that rely on the audio. It's not a real critique, as the use of sound is still leaps and bounds ahead of most films, it's just that for someone who pays so much attention to detail, I'm a bit surprised he's not using it to its full potential.
I was a little worried when the early promo materials focused on Tom Hanks (not my favorite actor). Luckily, this is a pretty typical Anderson flick, meaning there's an extensive cast where each character only has limited screen time. And with Hanks being one of the secondary ones, his presence is easy to overlook (also, not his worst performance to date). The rest of the cast is on point, though that's not a big surprise. At this point, I feel Anderson knows how to direct his actors and A-listers are tripping over each other just to get their name on the credits. Filling out an impressive, fitting cast shouldn't be too hard for him nowadays.
The start of the film is relatively normal, but it doesn't take too long before Anderson pushes it into dry absurdist territory. While you can dig for themes and deeper layers (and you can no doubt find some if you look hard enough), this is first and foremost a comedy that is meant to illicit laughs and giggles. And that it does very well. Every character has goofy characteristics, there are lots of visual gags, a handful of smart/meta references, and several absurd intermezzos. It's a well-rounded and dedicated comedy, the kind you don't see too often these days.
If this film would've been released five or ten years ago, it would've become an instant classic. The film is Wes Anderson at his finest and most precise, the only reason why it fails to stand out is that he has been making variations of the same film for a decade already. I get why some people are starting to tire of his work, but as a fan of maximalist cinema and directors with a strong and outspoken visual signature, Asteroid City is a real delight. I wouldn't mind if Anderson continues to crank out films like this at a steady pace, but the waning critical and public interest may put a stop to that sooner rather than later, so let's enjoy them while we can.