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16 June 2023

In Asteroid City, Wes Anderson is beyond parody

As a trend for homages to his work explodes, the director doubles down on his mannerisms in his most affected film yet.

By David Sexton

Wes Anderson’s style is hardly inimitable. For several years, a fan has been finding locations around the world that fit his aesthetic and putting them on Instagram. A charming book of these photos, Accidentally Wes Anderson, was published in 2020 and Anderson himself contributed a foreword. There’s a wallpaper line, The Anderson Aesthetic Collection, available too.

He’s been less enthused by the more recent trend on TikTok for outright parody. And on YouTube, facilitated by AI, you can see what the Wes Anderson version of any famous movie would look like – Lord of the Rings, Pulp Fiction, Spider-Man, The Matrix… They all feature his regular actors, cute settings, fey dialogue, ostentatious typography, extravagant costumes, symmetrical framings – the most obvious of his traits.

Anderson says he’s not watching. “I don’t want to see too much of someone else thinking about what I try to be because, God knows, I could then start doing it.” And yet in his new film, Asteroid City, which premiered at Cannes last month, he has doubled down on all of his mannerisms. If his last movie, The French Dispatch, seemed the ne plus ultra of Andersonian affectation, he’s back with his 11th feature to prove otherwise.

Asteroid City takes place in 1955 in a tiny town (population 87, the first of many signs tells us) in a desert in the American south-west where, on 27 September 3007 BC a giant meteor left a big crater. Here, a colourful crew arrives for the annual Asteroid Day, when brainiac teenage scientists are presented with medals in a ceremony masterminded by the wacky astronomer Dr Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton).

Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a battle-scarred war photographer, brings his clever son Woodrow (Jake Ryan), who is up for the White Dwarf Medal of Achievement. But Augie hasn’t told Woodrow his mother died weeks ago and that he has her ashes with him in a Tupperware. When their car explodes, he persuades his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks, making his Wes debut, in the Bill Murray slot) to come to their aid. Meanwhile, Monroe-like star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) has brought her clever girl Dinah (Grace Edwards), up for the Red Giant Sash of Honour. After finding themselves in adjoining cabins in the town’s only motel, symmetrical romances blossom between Augie and Midge, Woodrow and Dinah.

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[See also: Cormac McCarthy’s career defining books]

At the ceremony, though, a shiny UFO descends and an elongated alien (a stop-motion puppet morphing into Jeff Goldblum on stilts) climbs out to snaffle the town’s prized meteor. The army takes over and imposes a “quarantine”…

Enough already? But the story’s nothing like so simple. It’s framed within a frame within a frame. We begin with a sequence in black and white, in a boxy ratio, in which a TV host (Bryan Cranston) introduces us to a playwright typing the drama we are going to see – and then throughout the film, we also return to monochrome scenes from the backstage life of the play’s original production in New York – the actors playing actors playing actors, artifice upon artifice. “The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication,” the Host tells us.

Anderson has always delighted in the meticulous fabrication of the smallest details of his films, down to every picture or book seen. Here he has gone all the way. Asteroid City was filmed near Chinchón in Spain, where the entire town and its crater were constructed, along with – as scale models – the mountains seen in the distance, to create an all-encompassing vision.

Fans will, once again, find such totalised quirkiness entrancing. But, even more than The French Dispatch, the film is episodic and uninvolving, and far too pleased with itself. It may touch upon such emotional subjects as the loss of a parent and the ticklish transition from childhood to adulthood but these are never engaging or affecting, as they are in Anderson’s best films. All human reality has been absorbed into Wes world, the actors rendered as stylised and artificial as the props.

Maybe this is unfair, for it’s almost impossible to appreciate his films on a single viewing. They only reveal themselves fully when seen repeatedly, with expectations of suspense and realism abandoned, and treated almost like an installation (indeed, an Asteroid City props and models exhibition is on now in London). “I see movies over and over,” Anderson says. But in that case why not watch one of his truly great films, such as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox or The Grand Budapest Hotel, once more instead?

“Asteroid City” is in cinemas from 19 June

[See also: The Night of the 12th Review: a grim look at an unsolved murder]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars