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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
It is set sometime in the mid-1950s in a US desert town called Asteroid City, named so because 3,000 years ago this was the site of a meteorite landing. It is now the location for a US government observatory, but it is also where an annual convention takes place honouring the teen inventors of the best high-school science projects; these are of course hilariously scary and advanced, such as a fully functioning death ray.
Just as the kids and their parents assemble for the proceedings in the desert with its fierce, blue sky and yellowish terrain, a staggering event happens – more staggering than the periodic atom bomb tests whose mushroom clouds appear on the horizon. The president decrees that no one is allowed in or out of town, a strict lockdown will be enforced until the danger is deemed to have passed. Schwartzman plays a widowed war photographer who gets his cranky, grieving father-in-law (Hanks) to come and help look after the kids; he falls for a nearby inventor-kid mom, a movie star played by Johansson. Jeffrey Wright plays the general in charge, Steve Carell is the motel owner, Matt Dillon the town’s mechanic, Rupert Friend is the local singing cowpoke. Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber are among the parents, and everyone is delivering the lines with absolute seriousness.
But there is also a framing device that actually acknowledges the artificiality and two-dimensionality of Anderson’s familiar mise-en-scène, and the invisible proscenium arch within which his dramas appear to be happening. What we are seeing is supposed to be a stage play, though miraculously brought into an approximation of the real world, written by an emotionally fragile dramatist (Edward Norton) who is in a relationship with one of the cast.