Release Date(s)2023 (August 15, 2023)
Studio(s)American Imperical/Indian Paintbrush (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
Question: How much Wes Anderson would a Wes Anderson Wes Anderson, if a Wes Anderson could Wes Anderson?
Answer: Asteroid City.
Ever since Wes Anderson made his feature debut with Bottle Rocket in 1996, he’s been continually refining and perfecting his own unique form of cinematic grammar. It’s almost become a cliché at this point to say that every new Wes Anderson film is the most “Wes Anderson” thing that he’s ever done, but that’s still an accurate statement. It was certainly true of his 2021 effort The French Dispatch, which really did feel like it was the ultimate distillation of everything that he had done previously. It perfectly blended Anderson’s love of print journalism and the power of the written word with his deep love for the power of his own particular cinematic language. Form and content intertwined in such a way that it was impossible to separate the creator from his creation.
Yet as much as The French Dispatch may have seemed to be Anderson’s final word on the subject of Wes Anderson, he still managed to take things to the next level with Asteroid City. Literally so, because not only does Asteroid City examine the broader context of storytelling itself, but it does so in a multilayered fashion. It’s a story within a story, or to be more precise, it’s a movie within a play within a television special within a film. (If Anderson freely wears his artifice on his sleeve every time that he steps behind the camera, then he’s really baring it all with Asteroid City.) The primary story involves the culture clash between a disparate group of travelers who end up inadvertently quarantined in the town of Asteroid City (Pop. 87) at the dawn of the nuclear age in 1955. That story is actually being told via the staging of a play about these fictional events, and yet even the staging of the play is a work of fiction. The real framework is a WXYZ-TV broadcast that’s dramatizing the process of creating the play. The play itself doesn’t really exist, let alone the story that it’s supposed to be telling. The host of the show (Bryan Cranston, somehow managing to channel Walter Cronkite, Rod Serling, and Edward R. Murrow all at the same time) freely acknowledges that fact:
“Asteroid City does not exist. It is an imaginary drama created expressly for this broadcast. The characters are fictional. The text hypothetical. The events an apocryphal fabrication. But together, they present an authentic account of the inner workings of a modern theatrical production.”
Of course, there’s nothing authentic about it, since the broadcast itself is only being staged for our benefit. It’s a fiction about a fiction about a fiction. (Never mind the irony that the period setting means that it’s anything but an example of a modern theatrical production.) The existential angst that drives many of the characters in Anderson’s films is magnified in this case because Asteroid City openly acknowledges the fact that none of them ever existed in the first place. These characters struggle to find their place in the universe because they can’t even figure out their place in the drama. When one of the actors complains to the director that he still doesn’t understand the play, the director responds:
“Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”
Yet in Asteroid City, the particulars of that story aren’t nearly as important as is the way in which Anderson tells them. The French Dispatch had seemed like a thorough catalogue of all the cinematic tools and techniques that Anderson has refined over the decades, but Asteroid City takes that to the next level—which seems appropriate enough for a film that’s built around the concept of levels. There’s an extra layer of precision here that really does feel next-level in comparison to his previous work. Anderson’s films have always centered around his carefully framed tableaus, but in this case, even those frames have multiple frames within them. The characters are frequently framed through windows or other openings, with those frames precisely framed withing the film frame. It’s a distancing device that doesn’t just distance the characters from the viewer, but also the characters from each other. It’s a visual reminder of the difficulties that they all have in forming interpersonal connections. They’re trapped within their own personas, which are trapped within their own personal frames.
Even that is subject to the nested layers that form the structure of Asteroid City. While some of the actors in the film play single characters, like Edward R. Norton as the playwright Conrad Earp or Adrian Brody as the director, others are not just playing the characters in Asteroid City, but also the actors who play them in Earp’s drama. Even Anderson’s layers have layers in Asteroid City. He took no chances in that regard by including as much of his stock company as he possibly could, accompanied by a handful of major newcomers. It’s a staggering collection by any measurement, at any level: Cranston, Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Wright, Hope Davis, Steve Park, Liev Schreiber, Tom Hanks, Matt Dillon, Seu George, Tony Revolori, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Rita Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, and many, many more.
Of course, there are a few Anderson veterans who are absent from that list, with one of the omissions towering above the rest: Bill Murray. He’s appeared in one form or another in all of Anderson’s features since Rushmore, but that streak came to an unfortunate end with Asteroid City. Murray was originally cast as the motel manager, but he contracted COVID-19 while on vacation and had to be replaced at the last minute by Steve Carrell. Murray eventually made it to the set after he recovered, and he hung around in order to serve as a good luck charm for the cast and crew. Anderson couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn him into the story at that point, but they ended up improvising a short film featuring Murray and his longtime compatriot Jason Schwartzman. Murray plays Tab Whitney, an actor who was cast to play the industrialist Jock Larkings in the movie within the play within the television special within the film. Whitney tries to promote the production while walking around the set bemoaning the fact that his part ended up being cut out of it.
For a story built around the concept of layers, having Bill Murray as the aptly named Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film just adds another layer on top of everything else. So in that sense, it’s fair to say that Murray is still an integral part of Asteroid City after all. Considering that Anderson actually got his start by making a short subject called Bottle Rocket two years before he expanded it into a feature film, it’s entirely appropriate that Asteroid City ended up winding everything down into another short subject featuring Anderson’s muse Murray. Regardless of whether or not Murray is in the film itself, his indirect presence still proves that all’s right with the world.
Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman shot Asteroid City on 35 mm film using the same basic setup that he did for The French Dispatch with both ARRICAM ST and LT cameras. He utilized Cooke S4 Prime lenses for the shots framed at 1.37:1 and Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses for the shots framed at 2.39:1. Unlike many modern productions, he didn’t settle for desaturating color footage in order to create the black and white scenes, but insisted on switching stocks instead: KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213 for the color scenes, and EASTMAN DOUBLE-X Negative Film 5222 for black and white. The entire film was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate with variable aspect ratios. For home video, the 1.37:1 sequences have been pillarboxed within the 1.78:1 frame, while the 2.39:1 sequences are letterboxed instead. However, there are a few shots framed at 1.37:1 during the 2.39:1 sequences, and those have been windowboxed within the 2.39:1 container in order to maintain the proper relationship between them. (There are also a handful of shots where Anderson employed split screens with two slightly narrowed 1.37:1 images side-by-side.)
While it’s disappointing that Universal has elected not to offer a 4K Ultra HD version of the film, this is a still a standout Blu-ray presentation of the film. Even at 1080p, the image is sharp, clear, and detailed from edge-to-edge—Yeoman prefers Master Anamorphic lenses since they can hold focus with minimal distortion at the edges of the screen. Despite the fact that the color sequences in Asteroid City were shot primarily with natural lighting under the harsh desert sun, the contrast in those shots has been softened slightly, but that’s by design. For the black and white sequences, Yeoman brought in theatrical lighting director Matt Daw to help mimic the stronger contrast of overhead lighting in classic television productions. (Even the contrast in Asteroid City has contrast.) The stylized pastel color scheme of the Asteroid City scenes has been reproduced perfectly here, with a heavy emphasis on oranges and teals—actually, it’s a deliberately exaggerated emphasis on those colors, so this is anything but the type of orange/teal grade that’s so prevalent in modern home video masters. It’s exactly the kind of intentional artificiality that Anderson prefers. While a 4K version with HDR could potentially offer a bit more color detail than what’s present in this version, this is still a very good 1080p presentation of the film.
Primary audio is offered in English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s an appropriately restrained surround mix, with the rear channels mostly providing gentle ambience, although they do become more active during moments like the nuclear explosions and the running gag with the getaway car. The front channels are used with careful precision in order to reinforce Anderson’s visual tableaus, with directionalized sound effects and even directionalized dialogue during the split-screen sequences. As the characters and other visual elements spread from one side of the ‘Scope frame to the other, the sound helps anchor them to the screen. It’s all very Wes Anderson. The suitably quirky score by Alexandre Desplat is also reproduced perfectly. (It’s amazing how Deplat has managed to pick up right where Mark Mothersbaugh left off without ever feeling like there was any interruption in the Anderson-ness.)
Additional audio options include Spanish and French 5.1 DTS, plus English 2.0 Descriptive Video Service. Subtitle options include English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Universal’s Blu-ray release of Asteroid City is a two-disc set that includes a DVD with a standard definition copy of the film, plus a Digital code on a paper insert tucked inside. There’s also a slipcover that duplicates the poster artwork on the insert. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
- The Making of Asteroid City:
- Desert Town (Pop. 87) (2:39)
- Doomsday Carnival (1:25)
- Montana and the Ranch Hands (1:14)
- The Players (2:02)
Needless to say, these are all just simple EPK featurettes and not really anything resembling a making-of documentary. Desert Town (Pop. 87) focuses on the production design; Doomsday Carnival examines the creation of the carnival that springs up outside of Asteroid City; Montana and the Ranch Hands is a behind-the-scenes look at the hilarious prayer-turned-hoedown; and The Players covers the multilayered storytelling. While these do offer some tantalizing glimpses of the extraordinarily complex nature of the production, the whole thing is maddeningly superficial. (There is a “Play All” option, but it still barely adds up to seven minutes of total material.) Worse, it’s inexcusable that the short featuring Bill Murray isn’t included. That’s still available on YouTube, but it’s not like there wasn’t plenty of space on the disc to add it here as well.
So, there’s the quandary: Asteroid City is peak Wes Anderson and a worthy addition to any home video library, but it should have been released in 4K, and with way more extras than this rather perfunctory collection. Will Universal eventually offer a UHD? They’ve certainly been guilty of double-dipping like that prior to this. Will it eventually get the lavish Criterion Collection treatment? Maybe, but it’s worth noting that The French Dispatch still hasn’t been afforded the same care. Asteroid City is a film built around unknowns and uncertainties, and that’s also the nature of the physical media ecosphere these days. Whether or not you choose to wait and hope is up to you, but either way, this is still a quality Blu-ray presentation of the film.
- Stephen Bjork