Mladen and Del review ‘Asteroid City’

Image courtesy of Focus Features and Universal Pictures.

“Asteroid City” Starring Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck, Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell, Jake Ryan as Woodrow, Grace Edwards as Dinah, Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak, Edward Norton as Conrad Earp, Bryan Cranston as Host, and others. Directed by Wes Anderson. PG-13. 1 hour, 45 minutes. Amazon Prime.

Plot summary: What is this movie about? Beats me. There’s a bunch of mini-stories unfolding. A teenage crush. Tension between a father-in-law and his dead daughter’s husband. Loss of a loved one. An actress trapped in a malaise. What does the alien want? A weird financing scheme for desert land that you can’t own even if you buy it.

Are there spoilers in this review: Yes.

Mladen’s grade: B-

Del’s grade: B

Mladen’s take



Both huh’s capture my inexplicable attraction to this artsy, cartoonish, mostly rambling, well‑acted film with one helluva ditty about two-thirds of the way through. I enjoyed the movie for some reason but I’m not sure y’all will, so the grade above.

“Asteroid City” has been classified as sci-fi but I ain’t so sure it belongs squarely in that genre. Yes, there’s an alien visitation and then a second one to return what was taken by the cautious and alert biped from outer space during the first layover.

Yes, there’s talk about the planet Neptune and the solar system in general.

There’s a bit of stargazing and the geek children in the movie are all brainiacs but, really, “Asteroid City” tackles human relationships, government transparency, and the commercialization of an amazing phenomenon in quirky fashion.

In this film, people are real, as are some of the sets, but there’s also a “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or “Space Jam” vibe. The score is good. Pay attention to the dancing roadrunner as the credits roll.

Look, I’m sure the movie has a principal message or messages. Del the analyzer will find it or them. “Asteroid City” must have a purpose or purposes. Del the detective will find it or them. What I did get from the movie is the sense that the actors – adult and child alike – seemed to enjoy working with each other.

The film’s aesthetic also worked. Though cartoonish, “Asteroid City” is not childish. Though flowing from one act to the next often led to introduction of new storylines or characters, the movie isn’t disjointed.

If anything, this movie speaks to the sole merit of big bucks streamers such as Amazon Prime taking control of movie production. The decentralized system – Hollywood ain’t in control no more – of filmmaking allows experimentation. “Asteroid City,” to me, seems to be an experiment. Note, however, that the streaming services of the world are, overall, a threat to genuine filmmaking as their AIs take control of everything.

Why watch “Asteroid City”? It has something for everyone. A look at family dynamics. A look at different kinds of people interacting with each other. The control large governments, even those framed by a constitution that protects the rights of individuals, have over our individual lives. Also highlighted is that even aliens capable of interstellar travel might be motivated by the banal and bureaucratic when they visit Earth.

Del’s take

“Asteroid City” possesses charms I recognize but don’t appreciate. Therefore, writing this review will be hard. I recognize the virtues of “Asteroid City” but I don’t like “Asteroid City.” I’ve never been a Wes Anderson fan. “Rushmore” was mildly amusing, but let’s face it: I’m either way too literal or just stupid. “The Way Way Back” is more my speed.

“Asteroid City” is put together the way Christopher Nolan assembles a movie – by the most complicated route imaginable. “Asteroid City” is a frame within a frame within a frame, a play set to film, with Bryan Cranston as The Host in a modern day iteration of the ancient Greek theatrical style, and other members of the movie’s ample star-studded cast – Ed Norton and Adrien Brody – functioning as architects of the play. The story itself is a dramatic rendering of the play, and the actors are meta-aware of their roles, though never confident they’re “doing it right.”

I suppose one could say the story is about war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) taking his son and three daughters to a kind of Space Camp-style celebration at the site of a meteorite impact where the son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), is to receive an award and a scholarship. Once, there strange events take place, and even stranger interactions with other award-winners and their families educate all present about the nature of life and their roles in the world.

I think Mladen overestimates my powers of observation. Yes, I think there’s a coming-of-age component to the subtext, and yes, I think the story makes observations about the meaning of life and questions our beliefs about What Really Matters. But mostly what I see are wry jabs at, for instance, the military industrial complex, or the emphasis given to tech in our culture, or the almost religious and transcendent hope that somebody is out there, maybe somebody who is smarter than we and can straighten us out as a people – in other words, a Mom and Dad for the human race.

What I don’t like about “Asteroid City” is the artifice, and yes, I know, that’s a Wes Anderson trademark. But in “Asteroid City” the artifice seemed, well, artificial, as if Anderson was trying too hard, Everything about the movie was contrived, from the multiple framing devices used to tell the story to the weird, de-saturated pastel color palette and animated backgrounds; the bizarre score (composed of old Western-themed songs by Tennessee Ernie Ford and others); the strange, flat-affect delivery of dialogue; and the overall kookiness of the cast. It was too many hammers beating out of rhythm, and for me, the result was a chaotic syncopation of sight, sound and theme.

But I recognize my viewpoint is in the minority and that a great deal of skill went into the creation of “Asteroid City,” which is much loved by people who aren’t bothered by its loony artifice. I’m prepared to concede that maybe I just didn’t get it.

For that I’ll give it a grade of B. But still, for my purposes, I think “The Way Way Back” told a similar story and did it better.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and writer.