Wes Anderson's 'Asteroid City' is a love letter to UFO culture

tables and chairs are set up in a crater bathed in green light
A still from "Asteroid City." (Image credit: Focus Features)

UFO fever is at a seeming all-time high.

Given that those pesky UFOs (or unidentified anomalous phenomena/UAP as they're now known) refuse to reveal themselves, this is the ideal time for "Asteroid City," a fun new Wes Anderson sci-fi flick centered around a band of junior scientist inventors convening in the Arizona desert in the mid-'50s to experience a close encounter during a high school science competition.

Released wide on June 23, 2023 by Focus Features, "Asteroid City" is a joyous yet oftentimes somber affair that will provide ample kicks and giggles to Andersonian acolytes yet might seem a bit obtuse for mainstream audiences unfamiliar with his particular brand of cerebral indie indulgences.

Related: 1st 'Asteroid City' trailer reveals Wes Anderson's take on a space-age alien encounter

Promotional art for "Asteroid City." (Image credit: Focus Features)

Recalling the deluge of AI-driven homage trailers imitating writer/director Anderson's signature style of ensemble casts, pastel-colored production design, symmetrical shot compositions, esoteric wit, overly-articulate children and deadpan dialogue delivery, it's somewhat refreshing to finally get the real deal once again instead of the digital mimicry recently spread all over YouTube.

This picture-postcard Americana outing lovingly recreates a vintage 1955 desert town in the U.S. Southwest complete with golden sunset vistas, atom-bomb tests, stalwart cacti and red-rock mesa landscapes. "Asteroid City" is a stylized dream where a massive meteor crater provides the town with tourism dollars and limited renown amid its remote location and relative isolation.

The trademark nostalgic atmosphere and a jarring play-within-a-play narrative still provide enough of a cartoonish playground for the exceptional assembled cast of Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jake Ryan, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Hong Chau, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Grace Edwards, Aristou Meehan, Sophia Lillis and Jeff Goldblum.

As the story unfolds, we witness a mass gathering of super smart kids who are gathering for the Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets Convention. Here, budding geniuses vie for the top prize of a science scholarship with a range of next-generation inventions and contraptions that the U.S. government would secretly love to acquire from the eccentric prodigies, including a "Galactotron telescope" and "disintegration raygun."

Still from "Asteroid City." (Image credit: Focus Features)

During the competition festivities, a flying saucer with a silly-looking extraterrestrial arrives to steal the storied asteroid that the city of 87 citizens is most famous for. This event causes a swift military quarantine of the entire area, trapping all its assortment of quirky characters as the teen brainiacs attempt to establish communication with the outside world as the restrictions drag on with no end in sight and the adults quibble.

In terms of where "Asteroid City" falls in terms of style and content, it lies somewhere between "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," and perhaps slightly brushing up against "The Darjeeling Limited." 

Core themes of existential dread and musings on death don't interrupt its vibrant bit of nostalgia that will keep select audiences smiling beyond the Looney Tunes-like UFO that drops in on this celebration of discovery to set panic in motion.

Still from "Asteroid City." (Image credit: Focus Features)

The separate story framing the main narrative finds stage actors in these exact roles back in New York in a black-and-white faux documentary for an older teleplay also titled "Asteroid City," and narrated by a dapper Rod Serling-ish Bryan Cranston.

Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robert Yeoman is the longtime Anderson collaborator who provides those familiar compositions (shot on old-fashioned Kodak 35-mm film) that the Texas-born auteur filmmaker is celebrated for, with a wealth of striking tracking shots, portrait close-ups and sweeping horizontal pans all orchestrated to a stirring score by Academy Award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat ("The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Shape of Water").

The shallow artifice of post-war America and its simplistic suburban life and honest values is rattled to its foundations here in this dust-draped purgatory, filled to the rim with Golden Age sci-fi tropes like jetpacks and ray guns. It's a wonderfully dry cinematic martini freshly concocted from an automated dispenser and consumed as a satisfying tonic for fear just under the shifting sands of life. 

Still from "Asteroid City." (Image credit: Focus Features)

And just like Wes Anderson's collage of complex characters and their provocative rumination on humanity’s cosmic role and their quest to leave, "Asteroid City" is simply pure intoxicating escapism that goes down oh so smoothly.

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.