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Asteroid City Reviews: Critics Weigh in on Wes Anderson’s Retro Sci-Fi Story in the Desert

Can dozens of A-list stars and impeccable sci-fi style score the quirky director another direct hit?

By Benjamin Bullard
A still image from Asteroid City (2023)

Wes Anderson’s super-stylized movies bear the unique fingerprint of their visionary director like no others, and the six-minute ovation Anderson’s Asteroid City reportedly just received at the movie’s debut at Cannes suggests he’s left his indelible mark once again — only this time, with a science-fiction flick about finding breathing space (and maybe an alien or two) in the azure skies and rusty red rocks of a nostalgically 1950s-vintage version of the American desert.

Via Variety, the outpouring of extended applause for Anderson’s 11th movie came Tuesday at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, following a screening that Anderson himself confessed marked the first time he and the enormous Asteroid City cast had had a chance to see their own film from start to finish. “I’m so pleased to show the movie for the first time. We’ve never seen it before ourselves,” said Anderson, via the report. “Thank you to our cast of stupendous actors playing actors.”

As usual, Anderson’s story setup nests layers of meta-meaning deep within itself, couching the wild events that unfold during a weekend stargazing excursion inside the interpretive confines of a play-within-a-play — or, in this case, a winking in-movie TV series hosted by Anderson first-time collaborator, Bryan Cranston, and longtime troupe member, Edward Norton. Just like the characters in the main movie itself, the black-and-white TV show’s stars are stuck looking skyward as aliens move in from above… and they may even have a larger role to play in the movie’s vivid, living-color world.

RELATED: Asteroid City: How Many Movie Stars Can You Spot in Poster for Wes Anderson's '50s Sci-Fi Throwback?

Does that — and everything else about Asteroid City — actually work? Setting aside that big six-minute ovation, plenty of pro reviewers were on hand to catch the world premiere of Anderson’s first true foray into sci-fi territory, and we’ve rounded up a sampling of their Cannes reactions. Critics mostly love Asteroid City for layering complex themes across a sprawling cast — anchored by Scarlett Johansson and Jason Schwartzman — while tapping the movie’s space-race setting for a surprisingly emotional story that some reviewers say even exceeds all of Anderson’s previous work.

That’s high praise for the creative mind behind The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fantastic Mr. Fox… but then again, Asteroid City comes baked-in with a big vote of Hollywood confidence. The cast sprawls across a long list of major acting names, including Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Hope Davis, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, and Jeff Goldblum.

Debuting in limited release June 16 with exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles, Asteroid City arrives in theaters everywhere beginning Friday, June 23.

Here's an early peek at what Asteroid City reviewers are saying:

"Asteroid City’s eccentricity, its elegance, its gaiety, and its sheer profusion of detail within the tableau frame make it such a pleasure. So, too, does its dapper styling of classic American pop culture. With every new shot, your eyes dart around the screen, grabbing at all the painterly little jokes and embellishments, each getting a micro-laugh."— Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

"Like any movie by Wes Anderson, Asteroid City is the epitome of a Wes Anderson movie. A film about a television program about a play within a play 'about infinity and I don’t know what else' (as one character describes it), this delightfully profound desert charmer — by far the director’s best effort since The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in some respects the most poignant thing he’s ever made — boasts all of his usual hallmarks and then some." — David Ehrlich, IndieWire

"'You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep,' people are advised more than once in Wes Anderson’s madly original 11th film, Asteroid City, which is both addictively stylized and, like this clever little quote, perhaps more than a tad obscure about what it’s ultimately driving at. Set entirely in a sort-of Monument Valley-adjacent desert setting in 1955 and populated by a fabulous ensemble cast, this Cannes Film Festival competition entry from Focus Features, which will open commercially in the U.S. on June 16, is a madly quirky surprise that oozes creativity at every turn." — Todd McCarthy, Deadline

"From minute one, the retro setting proves ripe for [Anderson’s] artistic sensibilities, all sunblushed, saturated hues, sharp costuming, and handsome, hyperreal production design (the town looks like a kind of papier-mâché Monument Valley). He remains cinema’s most astonishing stylist, the rigour and detail in every frame never better. Wherever you care to look, his visual wit is all there, too, from the 'Intermission (optional)' title card that pops up halfway through, to the highway-to-nowhere built due to 'route calculation error.' Even Anderson’s camera moves are funny." — John Nugent, Empire

"Want Wes Anderson to make an alien movie? Don't turn to some computer program to do that. The man did it himself… Asteroid City has all of the ticks that make Anderson Anderson: the slow pans, the deliberate framing, the erudite dialogue, and a narrator to boot. It’s also his best film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a thoroughly hilarious piece that coalesces into something almost haunting. Asteroid City is thick with Americana, but the charming hootenanny of it all works in tandem with the deep questions the director is asking." — Esther Zuckerman, The Daily Beast

"As always with Anderson, the craft elements are impeccable, including Stockhausen’s playfully fake sets, Milena Canonero’s geek-chic vintage costumes, and Robert Yeoman’s cinematography, drenched in the dazzling colors of 35mm Kodak film and enlivened by lots of characteristic whip pans, artful symmetrical framing, and split-screen interludes. It has to be said, also, that every actor commits 100 percent to the director’s vision, like oddball figurines in a miniature toy world." — David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

"Set in a tiny red-rock Southwest Americana desert town in 1955, it may be the director’s most intricately ornate and fetishistic piece of world-building. Watching the movie, one glories, for a while, in the retro kitsch nostalgia and sheer stylized play that went into the creation of Asteroid City (pop. 87), with its ’40s-meets-’50s diner and motor court and one-pump gas station, its mesas that look like they’re made out of balsa wood, its occasional scrubby cactus, its giant meteorite crater that serves as a tourist attraction, and its intermittent atomic-bomb-test mushroom cloud that goes off in the distance." — Owen Gleiberman, Variety

"There is, to use tired modern parlance, a pleasant vibe to the film. It’s as if Anderson is turning his mind back on, switch by switch, after the cataclysms of the past few years. Suddenly his old pretensions feel welcome again; here, born anew, is the purpose of his particular (and occasionally vexing) style. It’s an oddly moving film, this bright and quite literally stagey curio involving an extraterrestrial. At its best, Asteroid City evokes the memory of what it was to first see a Wes Anderson film, surprised and delighted by its singular vision of life on Earth." — Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

"Layered as it is, Asteroid City feels a little more old-school for Anderson: visually arresting but with a grounded, charming, and considered script that confronts themes of parenthood and grief, as well as the transporting power of both stargazing and daydreaming. It is an easy film to love, and his best since The Grand Budapest Hotel." — Douglas Greenwood, Vogue