It is a hole in the ground, the formation of which was estimated and arbitrarily assigned to September 23rd 3,007BC, now celebrated on that date each year with Asteroid Day when junior stargazers are invited to Asteroid City to present their inventions and compete for the prize in the shadow of an atomic bomb testing site, the planned stopover in 1955 of widower photojournalist Augie Steenbeck and his four children, Woodrow, Cassiopeia, Pandora and Andromeda, extended when their car breaks down irreparably.
Augie finding his cabin is next to that of film actress Midge Campbell whose daughter Dinah is also a junior stargazer honouree, they form a friendship as do the children as research and inventions are presented, cowboys sing and dance, astronomer Doctor Hickenlooper scans the skies with her radiotelescopes, and the military arrive led by General Gibson to quarantine the area and take statements when an alien descends into the crater and absconds with the remaining fragment of the Arid Plains meteorite.
The eleventh film from director Wes Anderson, his trip to Asteroid City, co-written with Roman Coppola, takes his trademark formalised composition and retro-style and places them in the context of a dead-end desert roadstop town aspiring to what would become the space race occupied by a sudden influx of outsiders, a colourful fictionalised story presented within a monochrome retrospective of the late playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) hosted in by Bryan Cranston.
Anderson’s customary ensemble having undergone superinflation with roles for Jason Schwartzman and Scarlet Johansson as Augie and Midge, Jeffrey Wright as Gibson, Tilda Swinton as Hickenlooper, Willem Dafoe as acting teacher Saltzburg Keitel, Tom Hanks as Augie’s father-in-law Stanley Zak, Margot Robbie as his deceased daughter and even Jeff Goldblum as the visiting alien, the result should be impressive but instead with too many characters whose lives intersect randomly the result feels like a procession of cameos aimlessly seeking purpose and closure.
Midge suggesting to Augie that they are “two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of their pain because they don’t want to,” the affectations and mannerisms expected of an Anderson production are present but as empty as the crater in which his characters gather, the anticipated revelation or epiphany failing to materialise in either the superfluous frame where Adrien Brody’s director tells his leading man that it isn’t necessary to understand the character to play him or the staged performance itself.
Another Anderson exploration of emotionally stunted men whose unexpressed grief stifles their children but lacking the tangled emotion and charm of The Royal Tenenbaums or the grand scope and locations of The Darjeeling Limited, the potential and promise of Asteroid City are squandered in a disappointing show easily eclipsed by the observational cartoons of Tom Gauld which more genuinely express the quirks of scientists and their response to the unexpected outcomes of their experiments with focus, brevity and pathos.