Auteur of Wimsey Wes Anderson returns to the big screen with his small film “Asteroid City” - now on Blu-ray. His latest venture continues his narrative within a narrative structure for an equally poignant and confounding examination of shared personal experiences. Universal offers up an often stunning transfer with terrific audio but scant few extras. The question now is whether to buy today or wait for the inevitable Criterion Collection disc. Worth A Look
There’s something to be said about actually going to a film or a play to experience a work of art (or a piece of crap) communally. What works for one person may be boring and obnoxious to the person in the next seat. That’s the fun of experiencing something in a dark room with total strangers; everyone could be having a totally different experience, but you wouldn’t feel that if you were stuck at home. Wes Anderson’s latest exercise in comically dramatic whimsy "Asteroid City" feels like the director’s commentary about lockdowns as much as viewing films and art only from the comfort and safety of home.
Deep in the desert town of Asteroid City, a small motor court community only famous for the massive crater that rests at its borders, a group of unlikely people will become stranded there, and experience something incredible. Only that’s not the whole story, in fact, "Asteroid City" is a play written by a famous playwright who sadly passed away before it could be produced. But that’s not the whole story either, in fact, the production of the play and the play itself are the focus of a program on Channel 8 WXYZ television about the enigmatic playwright and his final work and the people that brought it to life.
For some time now, Wes Anderson has been fascinated with telling stories within stories within the framework of another story. It’s a storytelling maneuver that’s played well to his comedic sensibilities. The Grand Budapest Hotel still stands as his crowning achievement in that realm, but The French Dispatch was a decent follow-up even if I didn't completely love it. One could argue even that Moonrise Kingdom was the first attempt at this style of storytelling with Bob Balaban's “Narrator” motivating the story's progress. I like this style simply because it feels like you’re hanging out with that one friend who knows how to tell a great story well and they’ve always got fun stories to tell. For "Asteroid City", there’s a lot to love for longtime Anderson fans, but those not keen on the cut of his cinematic jib may be tested more than usual.
Point of honesty, I came away from my first theatrical outing with "Asteroid City" amused but a little bit disappointed. When you’ve had so many features of cartoonishly plucky characters and whimsical comedy and wild visuals, it’s easy and understandable to want more of the same. But this round Anderson projects each little storytelling facet of "Asteroid City" through the lens of enjoying shared experiences. So each piece of comedic hijinks is presented with a caveat that what you’re seeing isn’t always the actual story. It took my second viewing for this film to really click and get comfortable with what was happening. I wouldn’t call it his best ever but for a thematically densely layered work, it’s probably his most ambitious. Once I settled into what this film was versus what I wanted it to be, I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I did the first outing.
It’s impossible to detail which actors play which characters because they’re playing at least two different roles at any given time. It’s just easier to say Anderson has populated his little opus with his usual staple of players including the previously mentioned Bob Balaban but also Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Jeffrey Wright, Bryan Cranston, and Rupert Friend among others along with newcomers like Scarlett Johanson, Tom Hanks, Sophia Lillis, Steve Carell, and Maya Hawke. To pinch a phrase from Dr. Evil, some of them you’ll know, and some of them you’ll meet for the very first time. All of them are great in their respective multi-faceted roles. The only notable one missing is Bill Murray… for reasons. There aren’t a lot of scenes with them in this film, but I especially enjoyed what Matt Dillon and Liev Schreiber gave and I do hope Tom Hanks comes back for Anderson’s next show.
Whichever piece of the story is in play, Asteroid City is ultimately about the joys (or sorrows) of experiencing events with other people. It’s an incredible shared experience to create a film or put on a play with a group of talented performers. It’s a hell of a shared experience to go to the movies and laugh at the same jokes or shriek in terror at the same jump scares with an audience. You cut out those aspects and all you’re left with is yourself and whoever you decide to invite into your world. Frankly speaking, I find that sad. It’s why I’ll invest in great home theater equipment for the best possible viewing experience of my favorite films at home, but I will never build a dedicated home theater to replace the experience of going to the movies.
I’ve heard a lot of reasons why some film fans have sworn off going to the theater for good, and to be blunt I find most of those reasons to be elitist or just plain bullshit. I get the rising expenses of going to the theater. I perfectly understand distance to quality theaters can be an issue. But I know of some people who want to revel in a bad showing where it was out of focus or the sound was low but then they never got up to let anyone working the theater know the problem. Decades ago when I worked a theater I encountered this all the time. The film could have been corrected and/or restarted, the person could have been comped free tickets or snacks. Instead, they sat there for two-plus hours and took it like some perverse badge of honor as “proof” of why they’ll never go to the theater again.
After three viewings now, I wouldn’t necessarily call "Asteroid City" a great film but I’d say it’s a very good one. It’s got a lot to say with some heartfelt humor and whimsy and it left me thinking more about why I go to the movies nearly every week. It got me thinking about the two paragraphs above and why I passionately love this entertainment medium. Some go to church for a sense of community. I go to the movies. That big screen is my altar where I hope to experience something that’ll make me laugh or cry or scream or sit in stunned silence. At worst, it simply passes the time. Sometimes I’m alone in the theater, sometimes it’s packed. But it’s always a unique experience, and I felt Anderson’s latest reminded me why I’ll never trade that away. So yeah, "Asteroid City" is a good film. Not for everyone, but I dug it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Asteroid City lands on Blu-ray thanks to Universal in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital set. Pressed on a BD-50 disc, the discs are housed in a sturdy two-disc case with an identical slipcover. The disc loads to an animated main menu with basic navigation options.
With a varying aspect ratio of 1.37:1 to 2.39:1 (and sometimes a 1.37:1 within the 2.39:1) this 1080p transfer for "Asteroid City" is another visual marvel from Wes Anderson. From the black and white television photography to the 1950s pastel pastiche of the play portion of the story, the film looks terrific. Details are sharp and clear with a wonderful film-like appearance with a cinematic grain structure. The colors aren’t exactly “normal” by design with pinks, light oranges, and bright yellows the order of the day. A couple of sequences have some heavy green for a specific reason. Black levels are deep and inky with lovely shadows for a nice sense of depth to the image, even in the tightest locations. For those black and white scenes, the grayscale is practically perfect with lovely bright whites, deep blacks, and lovely shadow gradience in between.
On the audio side, we have a subtle but fully engaged DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio mix. This isn’t an action-packed film by any means but there’s plenty of activity throughout the soundscape to keep the channels working. Sometimes it’s as simple as a gust of wind or an echo on a theater stage or an off-camera laser blast to catch your attention, but the sound design is precision placement perfect complete with another lovely and addictive Alexandre Desplat score. Throughout the film, the dialog is clean and clear albeit with some dependence on which part of the story you’re in. The scenes within Astroid City itself have a distinct auditory flavor compared to the scenes within the making of the play. Levels are spot on without issue.
Considering this is a Wes Anderson film, it’s a virtual certainty that a bigger and better Blu-ray set is on the horizon from the good folks at Criterion. As such this initial assortment of extras isn’t half bad even if it constitutes barely seven and a half minutes of content. It may be brief but it’s a nice overview of the pieces of the production - especially building a small motor court town in the middle of Spain. It's the taster ahead of the main feast that's sure to come later.
"Asteroid City" isn’t a movie for everyone. But then again most Wes Anderson films play to a select group anyway. Even then, this one is not necessarily going to appeal to the whole group. I like it quite a bit, but it also took me three full viewings to sort out my thoughts on it and appreciate what Anderson was going for. Not my favorite film in his catalog, but I’ve come to enjoy it more with each visit. In true Anderson form, his latest picks up a simple and slim Blu-ray release that will essentially hold as a place stop ahead of the inevitable Criterion Collection release - whenever that may be. As a disc unto itself, it offers up solid A/V all around. Bonus features are very slim and but a tease for what better bonus content is yet to come. So if you’re a die-hard Anderson fan I’d wait for Criterion’s release, but if you’re a little more passive and just want the film, this disc will do. Worth A Look