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Asteroid City: First Reviews Call The Movie Classic Wes Anderson Fare

Wes Anderson, the premier purveyor of perfectly framed cinematic whimsy, returns this year with "Asteroid City." While trailers suggested that it would be Anderson's take on science fiction, it turns out to be more than that, something much stranger, as those who saw its Cannes premiere found out today. Following that debut, initial reviews are rolling in, and the rapidly forming consensus among critics is that while "Asteroid City" is at times confusing and often achingly twee, it is Anderson operating at the peak of his powers.

The conceit "Asteroid City" builds around is as off-kilter as anything the director has conceived. It is a movie pretending to be a television program about a stage play within another play, full of cosmic signs and wonders, a brief visit from an alien, and Jason Schwartzman playing a man who carries around his recently deceased wife's ashes in a Tupperware. Standard Anderson fare, in other words.

Whether that's your cup of tea depends on whether Anderson's aching sentimentality and visual rigidity turn you off or draw you in, as far as the initial reviews are concerned. While most critics lavished praise on "Asteroid City," a few found themselves pulling back with distaste. Here's what they had to say.

It's Anderson whimsy all the way down

A repeated note across most reviews at the time of writing is that "Asteroid City" is among the most gorgeous films Wes Anderson has delivered, perhaps even a new crown jewel. Given that even the shakiest of Anderson's movies are still eye candy from beginning to end, that's high praise. Anderson has always understood the inherent artificiality of cinema and worked to explicate it, allowing him to take liberties within the medium that would come off as indulgent in the hands of any other filmmaker. His latest outing appears to be the most prominent example of that indulgence yet, and even the sourest critics couldn't help but be taken in by the scenery.

Writing for Deadline, Todd McCarthy calls Anderson's latest film "a fresh, original and disarming creation unlike anything else you might have seen with a degree of stylized storytelling that is notable and often exciting," while suggesting, surprisingly, that its Cold War sensibilities might make it a good double billing with Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" later this year.

For those who loved "Asteroid City," the hyper-dramatized kitsch of it all is thematically coherent with the emotional undercurrents propelling the film, exploring intersections of grief, the uncaring expanse of the galaxy, and how we make meaning amid the smallness of our lives. "The audacity and beauty of 'Asteroid City' lie in the way it connects the mysteries of the human heart to the secrets of science and the universe," writes Bilge Ebiri for Vulture.

Asteroid City is even weirder than it looked in trailers

While reviewers seem to agree that "Asteroid City" is the best Wes Anderson film in quite some time, they also note that its framing device is perplexing. Though not without purpose, it is a matryoshka doll of nested narratives, a movie about a TV broadcast about a play within a play. Bryan Cranston plays a character cryptically named The Host who guides audiences through the layers down to the heart of Asteroid City, a town with fewer than 100 residents where everyone is emotionally and physically trapped.

While satisfying to various degrees, the conceit had some reviews wishing it could have been left out of the movie. "For good stretches, you even forget that this narrative interruption device even exists, and the film is better for it," writes Deadline. Variety's Owen Gleiberman is much harsher, calling "Asteroid City" "the filmmaker's most hyperactive yet coyly obtuse piece of storytelling."

Others, however, can't get enough of Anderson's ever-escalating style. For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri notes the movie's exploration of the human desire to exert control over our lives, which he feels is enhanced by the Andersonianism of it all, and enthuses, "There has always been a method to Wes Anderson's madness, but 'Asteroid City' reminds you that there is also a madness to his method."

"Asteroid City" arrives in theaters June 23, 2023.