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Movie Review – Asteroid City

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One of my father’s shortcomings was his unfailing conviction that what he knew that what he had seen before was always better than a new version. The new version of Batman/Doctor Who/Mission: Impossible/anything really was never as good as the one he’d seen. “Bah…it’s not as good as the original” he’d say. Invariably, before he’d actually seen the new one. There are certain directors who I have a similar blind spot about except that I always go into the cinema knowing that I’m going to enjoy their latest offering. Luc Besson, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, Danny Boyle, and, in this case, Wes Anderson.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Asteroid City for, about, two years. I vaguely remember seeing a tweet mentioning the name when I was in the midst of The French Dispatch anticipation/excitement/euphoria. I had no idea what it was going to be about but, quite frankly, couldn’t have cared less! I’d already absorbed Mr Anderson’s films about a faux Jacques Cousteau, a literal isle of dogs, young love, the fight against the rise of fascism, and a family of wily foxes. He could, in all honesty, make a film about peeling potatoes and I would buy a ticket for the first showing. I love his use of colour, framing, mise en scène, and the ensemble cast.

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I Reckon That Alien Didn’t Mean No Harm

So what did Asteroid City turn out to be about? Before I went to see it I was asked by Jill to say what I thought it was going to be the theme. My initial response was Close Encounters done by Wes Anderson. After all, the trailer showed a junior science fair being held in the eponymous location which was famed for a meteorite strike three thousand years earlier. While the young geniuses and their families are there an alien lands which changes everyone’s world view and causes the powers that be to impose a military enforced quarantine. What I didn’t know was the “story within a story” structure which becomes obvious right from the first second.

It is very easy to tell where you are in the story. Even easier than with The Grand Budapest Hotel which used a different aspect ratio depending on which decade the action was taking place in. In Asteroid City, the making of/behind the scenes parts are shot in black and white and 1.33:1 while the story itself is being told it switches to an intense, while still pastel coloured, palette and the screen expands to 2.35:1. It is a simple but effective way of keeping the audience in the know and up to speed with where we are in the narrative. To be honest though, it is a relatively straightforward case of saying how a story was written and then performed.

I Do A Nude Scene, You Want To See It?

All the usual Anderson hallmarks are there. A set but limited palette; two if you count B&W as a separate one. Very careful framing; often centred, sometimes mirrored, but always interesting. In every scene there is a lot to see. You do wonder if you’ve missed something because there is so much background detail. There was the usual level of humour. Not screamingly funny but gently amusing with occasional snaps when you just laugh out loud. There is the usual panoply of characters. It’s almost like a game of Wes Anderson Repertory Bingo; there’s Jeff Goldblum, there’s Bob Balaban, ooh…Jeffrey Wright! 

An underlying theme of the Asteroid City play, was a reflection of the world at the time and how it was coping with things. By that I don’t mean the mid fifties when the action is set but the 2020’s when the script was being written. The fact that the cast are in an externally enforced quarantine is something that was obviously playing on the minds of Wes Anderson as he was similarly locked down by the strictures of the COVID-19 pandemic. This made it more poignant when longtime collaborator Bill Murray fell victim to the illness and had to be replaced by Steve Carrell. Still, for me, this is definitely a must buy when it gets released: I so want to watch it with a pause button to hand! Is it my favourite Wes Anderson film? No, but it is up there.

Movie Grade: A


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