12 things you need to know about Asteroid City

Wes Anderson is just about the last auteur you’d expect to put together a big-budget sci-fi epic. That’s why his first remotely sci-fi film, Asteroid City, is none of those things: it’s a 1950s-set trip back to retro-futurism, with the usual slew of familiar collaborators and a modest budget of around $25 million.

On its surface, the movie looks a tad like the coming-of-age sweetness of Moonrise Kingdom, blended with The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s tricky multiple framing devices, and a dash of space age whimsy for flavour. Scroll for everything we know about Anderson’s eleventh film, including its mega-cast, production details, and what we should expect from the director next.

1. It’s Wes Anderson’s take on pandemic-era storytelling

The plot of Asteroid City sees a bunch of eccentrics sequestered in a small desert town when an alien rocks up to steal the location’s famed meteorite. Desperate to keep the news from reaching the outside world, a five-star General (Jeffrey Wright) orders the strangers—and their kids, all gathered for a Junior Stargazer convention—to quarantine in the town’s motel.

While the global threat keeping these characters stuck inside is far more fantastical than our dull, IRL pandemic, Anderson has credited the darkness of COVID-19 for inspiring his new film’s “improvisational” spirit. “I don’t think there would be a quarantine in the story if we weren’t experiencing it”, he told Deadline.

2. The movie is kinda both Barbie and Oppenheimer, all at once

Could Asteroid City be the ultimate addition—or societal cure—to the big-screen double-feature sensation that is Barbenheimer? Stay with us here. Barbie star Margot Robbie appears as our hero Jason Schwartzman’s late wife, and Barbie composer Alexandre Desplat is a returning collaborator.

But then again, being set in the American desert where scientists are scurrying to prove themselves with outlandish new tech tests, Asteroid City could make a neat companion to Oppenheimer, too. With its powdery, bright mid-century aesthetic and themes of galactic discovery, the film is a nice midpoint between these two mammoth blockbusters.

3. Newcomers to the wild world of Wes include Tom Hanks, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell…

…Hong Chau, Sophia Lillis, and Rita Wilson, plus Scarlett Johansson and Bryan Cranston in their first live-action roles for Anderson after vocal performances in Isle of Dogs. Some of Anderson’s most favoured collaborators get big parts, including Jason Schwartzman as a lonesome widower, Edward Norton as a playwright, and Adrien Brody as a fussy film director. Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Stephen Park, and Tony Revelori round out the returning familiar faces. So who are we missing?

4. It’s one of few Wes Anderson films to not feature Bill Murray

Mr. Murray has been in all but two of Anderson’s films: his debut Bottle Rocket, and now, thanks to a bout of COVID-19, this latest production. Owen Wilson is also not along for this particular Anderson joint, meaning we might feel the absence of two of Wes’s fondest and oldest collaborators. Sad. While Anderson didn’t manage to fit Murray into the film once his health recovered—instead casting Steve Carell in the part—he did give Murray the chance to act in a promotional short film building up hype for Asteroid City. Watch it just below!

5. The film’s story is a nested narrative: a play within a TV special within a movie

A TV host (Bryan Cranston) introduces us to a televised production by a playwright (Edward Norton). Jason Schwartzman plays both an actor, Jones Hall, and the character he’s depicting in the play Asteroid City, photographer Augie Steenbeck. Will all of these nested layers of mid-century storytelling be confusing to put together? If the beautifully layered narrative of The Grand Budapest Hotel was your kinda thing, then Asteroid City‘s complex framing devices shouldn’t be an issue. Even when Scarlett Johansson shows up as characters named Midge and Mercedes.

6. The script is co-written by Roman Coppola—Jason Schwartzman’s cousin

Anderson’s work is just lousy with Coppola descendants and collaborators—in fact, it’s kind of a bummer he’s never included Nicolas Cage in one of his movies. Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford, sister to Sofia, and cousin to Jason and Nicolas, first helped out Wes Anderson with the script for The Darjeeling Limited, and has since been responsible for co-writing many of the director’s best films, including Moonrise Kingdom. They don’t work together on every film, but it seems Coppola’s input makes Anderson’s films a little bit more feely and sweet, IMO.

7. Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker wrote the movie’s song “Dear Alien (Who Art In Heaven)”

Although Desplat composes the overall score for Asteroid City, the official soundtrack also includes 17 country tunes from the film’s 1950s Arizona setting. And! Two extra, original songs written by Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the Britpop act Pulp. Cocker and actor Rupert Friend appear in the film as singing cowboys, which explains the hectic, yodelling, banjo-strummin’ wild west energy of the song you can listen to above. Yee, and I cannot stress this enough, haw.

8.  Our critic reckons it’s the director’s most “simple” movie yet

Katie Smith-Wong got to catch Asteroid City a tad earlier than some audiences, and has called it “aesthetically… the simplest Wes Anderson feature to date. The ironically small scale of the ‘city’ keeps the story confined to one single area that not only makes the events of the film feel more fantastical but sows a deeper appreciation of simple storytelling that adheres to the world of classical theatre.” This seems unlikely, what with the movie’s massive, unwieldy celeb cast and that complex framing structure of stories-within-stories. But Smith-Wong’s perspective makes us only more excited to see a less showy Anderson film, freed up to dig into its character’s emotions a little deeper.

9. Filming took place in Spain, with cast members staying in an old monastery

Principal photography for Asteroid City was originally planned to take place in Rome, but Anderson and his stars got a sunny holiday outta the whole shoot anyways by instead choosing to film near Madrid, Spain. In the town of Chinchón, a massive diorama was built to represent Asteroid City‘s train station, diner, garage, and lunar observatory. Cast members kept up the whimsical Anderson energy even when sleeping, as actor Fisher Stevens explained they were bunked in an ancient monastery for the duration of the shoot.

10. Costume designer Milena Canonero has some serious sci-fi cred

Italian costume legend Canonero has won four Academy Awards, including one for Anderson’s previous period film The Grand Budapest Hotel. But she’s a particularly perfect choice for Asteroid City due to her past in costuming some of the greatest science-fiction films ever made: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yep, she’s responsible for the iconic suspenders and bowler hats of Alex and his Droogs, as well as Discovery One’s bright, primary-coloured spacesuits. Kubrick’s fussy, visually stunning plateaus are certainly an influence on Anderson’s well-ordered cinema worlds, so Canonero’s fashion influence can only be a good thing for the new film.

11. Anderson has revealed he’s not a fan of social media’s ‘WesTok’ craze

Mid-century sans-serif fonts, bright pastel colours, and deadpan hipsters have taken over TikTok of late in a craze of creators adopting Wes Anderson’s signature twee style to otherwise mundane videos. The video below is a solid, if somewhat dark example…and yet the director has said he’s not interested in checking out the social media trend for himself. “I protect myself from that”, he’s said: “I’d be afraid to think: ‘Is this really how people see my films?'”

@valerisssh Inspired by a girl in TikTok who made a video about her train trip and I decided to make something like she, but about war consequences that happens everyday. #ukraine ♬ Obituary – Alexandre Desplat

The sole exception is in his admiration for the Insta account Accidentally Wes Anderson, a collection of photos that happen to resemble scenes from the director’s finely-styled films. “It’s one of the only tributes that touched me! They’re beautiful photos of places I’d like to have been”, Anderson admitted.

12. Anderson’s next film is due on Netflix in just a few months

Arriving just a tad before the big-screen Willy Wonka prequel, Wes Anderson’s own take on Roald Dahl’s fiction will be a comedy short segmented into four short pieces. It’s got a killer cast, too, with Grand Budapest Hotel star Ralph Fiennes as Dahl himself and Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Ayoade, and Dev Patel joining the fray. Titled The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Anderson’s Netflix short adapts a Dahl collection of stories for slightly older audiences than the kids who might’ve enjoyed The Fantastic Mr Fox, with the title tale starring Cumberbatch as a wealthy gambler who teaches himself the extraordinary ability to see without his eyes.