How we’ve often wondered what goes on in one of the most-popular contemporary auteur’s mindsets when constructing some of the most visually grand, obscure, and language-grappling films: The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox and even an island full of Dogs. Adore them or think they’re self-aggrandising, it’s fruitless to dispute their artistic merit.

Well, now is your chance to peek beyond the curtain. Pushing the narrative from screen to stage, back to the screen, and into a new more personal realm, Asteroid City is a play. But isn’t actually a play. It’s clearly a movie. But it isn’t really a movie.

Come on, what did you expect from Wes Anderson?

Named for the city surrounding a space rock which collided into the desert, a world-famous writer constructs a fictional play surrounding a grieving family who arrive at the titular city, a small and rural neighbourhood, to compete in a junior stargazing event. Looking to the skies, some residents are looking for profit, others for science. But a few look to the Heavens for answers of a different sort.

Nestled within this pop-up of overly saturated mise-en-scène and stylistically dry performances, the illustrated appeal, even magic, of Anderson continues to attract and fascinate. It doesn’t burn, smoulder, or even revolutionise; it merely exists. And there’s something quite marvellous about that. And as much as Asteroid City may concern itself with the universe, the grief of a family, young love and even aliens, there is an invitation to the backstage of the creative process.

Shifting between the bleached azures and barren desert of the film, and the tighter aspect ratio of the monochromatic theatre, Asteroid City, unsurprisingly, is jarring. There is a purpose here, but into how much of that the audience wants to dig is another story. Asteroid City strips back the processes of character, the navigation of the relationships between them, and the set construction and fabric of storytelling. While the theatrical elements may divide audiences – it is a clever, if somewhat inert, simulacrum.

The rogue gallery of Anderson’s flock emerges with the typical drawn-out performances. Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wight, Maya Hawke, and Hope Davis all have that wistful trance one expects from Anderson’s direction. Commendable mentions to Steve Carrell and Anderson’s lucky-charm Tilda Swinton for their particularly engaging characters and subdued, yet melodramatic deliveries.

Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson turn in convincing emotions in that wry-Anderson style, forming a palpable relationship as a grieving husband who connects with the fatigued star. The better cameo performances are locked into the theatrical portions of the film, the likes of Brian Cranston’s Rod Serling meets Walt Disney-esque Host or Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton and Adrien Brody turning in bold and enlarged theatre producers and makers are oddly the most realistic of characters. Except for the children, done very much on purpose. Despite the star draw of the rest of the cast, the younger actors are the centre of Asteroid City, often the only characters able to commit to genuine emotion, Grace Edwards especially.

For the uninitiated to the Toybox of Anderson’s cinematic catalogue, Asteroid City presents the signature style with less confidence than usual but still finds itself with that well-devised mannered speech and that meticulous chocolate-box framing. For the aficionado it’s one of the director’s finely-arranged pieces, but not a steady return to form. It’s likely to go no further than some visual and performance appreciation for this rather inert comedy-drama.

Screening in cinemas now