Asteroid City: A Surprising Misfire from a Celebrated Auteur (Blu-ray)
Writer/director Wes Anderson is well-known for his quirky style of storytelling, having given us several peculiar & captivating films like "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and earning an impressive seven Oscar nominations along the way. However, even with such an impressive filmography, that's not to say that his projects have always worked out. For example, his second-to-last effort, "The French Dispatch," had his usual trademark flair, but the collection of stories within left a lot to be desired, turning it into a visually-intriguing, but ultimately forgettable work. Now he returns with his latest film, "Asteroid City," which his fans are hoping will bring back his remarkable talent for telling odd, yet compelling stories.
The film takes place in the 1950s and is presented as a play by renowned writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). In the play, a convention of young astronomers (the "Junior Stargazers") is being held in the small desert town of Asteroid City. Photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) arrives with his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan), as well as his three daughters. When their car breaks down, Augie is forced to call his father-in-law (Tom Hanks) for help, with him agreeing to meet them there.
In the meantime, Augie and his family meet the other convention participants, including actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright). The convention begins, with the kids being awarded prizes for their inventions, but the event is interrupted by the appearance of a UFO, from which an alien emerges to steal the meteorite that formed the crater the convention is being held in. The town is immediately put under military quarantine, but even with security safeguards in place, it doesn't take long for the news to hit the national stage.
"Asteroid City" is a rather unusual project in Anderson's filmography, and it's not just for the standard reasons of his fascinating style. For starters, we have a story wrapped within another story, letting us know that everything we're watching is either part of the play or adjacent to it. As the play proceeds, we meet an eclectic bunch of oddball characters (another Anderson staple), but as it continues on, you slowly start to realize that it's not really getting anywhere, plot-wise or character-wise, which, for an Anderson feature, becomes rather alarming.
Late into the film, he does attempt to get things moving by introducing the UFO/alien elements, which causes our characters to be trapped in the town while under quarantine, but even then, this tale sadly never progresses to the point of being engaging or compelling. Meanwhile, the additional wrap-around pieces regarding the production of the play only serve to constantly interrupt the main narrative itself, adding practically nothing to a story that is already struggling to keep its audience's attention. Even the aforementioned eclectic cast of characters seem but shadows of the lovable, memorable parts that Anderson is so well-known for.
That said, "Asteroid City" does still have the usual Anderson panache. The production design of the town is stunning, to say the least, and the cinematography is beautifully calculated. As far as the visuals go, there's no fault to be found. However, when it comes to Anderson's meandering, misguided screenplay, not even this marvelous cast, which includes Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Wright, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton. Willem Dafoe, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, and Adrien Brody, can breathe much life into it. Much like "The French Dispatch," the writing leaves a lot to be desired, but even more so here.
It's rather unfortunate to have to say that "Asteroid City" is a pretty big misfire from the famed auteur, but it's also remarkably strange that he would write something so surprisingly insubstantial like this. We can only hope that he'll put a lot more time, care, effort, and thought into his next feature so we can all go back to enjoying his eccentric characters and charming stories once more. It feels like it's been quite a long time since we've gotten a truly great Wes Anderson film, so the day simply can't come fast enough when he hits those heights once again.
"Asteroid City" comes to Blu-ray in a 2.39:1/1.37:1, 1080p transfer of outstanding quality. The image is perfectly clear and sharp throughout the film's entire duration, highlighting its remarkable production design and cinematography. Likewise, the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is fantastic, giving you all of the dialogue and Alexandre Desplat's score in excellent quality. Overall, the presentation of the film is simply marvelous, earning top marks in both areas.
The Making of Asteroid City (7 Minutes): A four-part series of very short featurettes that show some behind the scenes footage, but unfortunately don't really go into any depth about the making of the film.
Wes Anderson's "Asteroid City" is a remarkably surprising misfire from a writer/director known for delivering compelling stories with fascinating characters. His latest is an odd, meandering mess, littered with uninteresting characters and a narrative device that's more distracting than helpful, ultimately making this the weakest film in the auteur's mostly-incredible, distinguished body of work.
Available on Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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