Outside the Atmosphere: Asteroid City’s Breathless Search for Meaning

Movies Features Wes Anderson
Outside the Atmosphere: Asteroid City’s Breathless Search for Meaning

To Wes Anderson skeptics, all of his movies might as well be science fiction. His framing is meticulous, his physical comedy as precise as a quartz watch, his actors like vintage store mannequins with daddy issues. They deliver lines quickly, perfectly, like bon mot-bots. Are his films not of this Earth? Is he more machine than man? His artifice is more explicit, celebrated, and loathed than that of almost any other mainstream director. But that polarizing style posits the same speculation as every other filmmaker: “What if the world was like this?” It’s just a little louder about it. Anderson’s unreality has never had a more expansive scope (or clarity of vision) than in Asteroid City, which is also his postcard-perfect tribute to pulp sci-fi. Explicitly putting the “alien” in the alienation that his characters feel and his creations can evoke, Anderson looks through a telescope (and through the looking-glass) on an exploratory mission for meaning that spans art, religion, science, and love. His search creates one of the most deeply layered, melancholy, breathless movies of the year.

One of the first things you need to understand is that Asteroid City is a sister city of Synecdoche, New York. It’s a Kaufman-like meta-movie, broken down on the way to the Grand Canyon. It is a story within a story, as much about multiple creators and the objectives of their nested creations as it is about a UFO.

Asteroid City is presented as an episode of a ‘50s TV show, airing a vivid-yet-stagey rendition of a fictional play written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). There is the televised “real world” and the reality of the play itself. The former is the black-and-white behind-the-scenes of the play, confined to a boxy aspect ratio. The latter is shot wide, set in a desert town somewhere off the stretch of Technicolor highway where Wile E. Coyote fruitlessly chased his Road Runner.

This structural complexity isn’t new for Anderson, but it’s less confusing than confrontational. Asteroid City’s screenplay announces its acts and scenes; its actors play actors who don’t understand their own project. Anderson’s intentionally visible hand in his worlds has always been criticized. Here, he leans into the visibility. If he rarely asks for us to suspend our disbelief, here he’s explicitly telling us: Disbelieve away! It’ll get you in the right headspace, considering the creators as much as the creations. 

Because Asteroid City never allows us to forget its synthetic nature, the idea of authorship is as deeply embedded in it as the space rock in the town’s crater. We think about Anderson—stuck in quarantine, like Asteroid City’s townspeople—figuring out how to translate pandemic-sparked, navel-gazing depression to a diorama-like American town in the Spanish desert. The dry stiffness of the play clashes with the heartfelt chaos of its production, seeming to reflect the messy desire to make and the awkward dissatisfaction of having made.

We also think about lonesome Earp, typing out his Western fantasy in his cowboy-emblazoned jacket. Earp doesn’t quite know why his characters do what they do. It’s more like he thought them up so he could see what they’d get up to. When one of his actors taps into something true, something Earp wasn’t conscious of, they become lovers. This is what happens when you feel understood, especially around your art. And he lives and dies by his writing—literally. Earp emerges with his play’s introduction and dies, in a car crash, once it finally sees the stage.

Atop these two is an omnipotent master of ceremonies (played here by Bryan Cranston), letting us into the heads of the creators and able to (accidentally in one scene) be in both of the movie’s worlds. Earp’s interrupting interludes are lorded over by an homage to one of TV’s most godlike figures: Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone host. He does his best to guide us through the City’s winding streets, but even he’s capable of making a mistake.

This narrative gamble means that, from the moment we blow into Asteroid City on a train—our perspective strapped to its rolling thunder until we’re dropped off like Spencer Tracy about to have a Bad Day at Black Rock—we’re curious about who’s in charge, and what they’re trying to tell us.

So too are the precocious Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets rolling into this dead-end town, there to showcase the Buck Rogers jetpacks and rayguns they invented. They question Tilda Swinton’s astronomer, jot down notes, and try to figure out what it all means. Asteroid City takes our gaze from left to right along the set-like village, but encourages it to rise to the heavens. There, we don’t find answers, but rather that our questions are more universal than we might’ve thought. 

When the flying saucer arrives, awe quickly fades. Asteroid City’s alien is, at his simplest, a silly little guy. Long and thin and monochromatic, he moves like a raccoon in porchlight—a burglar who knows he’s been spotted, bound by curiosity. He acts like a child, caught attempting to figure something out, when he reaches down to pilfer the “rogue pygmy cometette.” Maybe that’s why all the kids relate so strongly to him and the questions his existence raises, while the unimpressed adults continue focusing on their personal problems. The Army tries to understand what E.T. means for the Cold War; the parents think he looked at them with pity, or maybe contempt. It’s a little boy who writes a song called “Dear Alien,” looking to start up a conversation.

As much as the alien is representative of a universal desire to make sense of what’s in front of him—when he returns, he drops off the asteroid, now marked with some sort of cataloging information—he, like so many of the movie’s figures, could especially stand in for Anderson. The filmmaker’s ordered, perfectly put-together chaos can strike us as an outsider struggling to grok humanity. Asteroid City sees that not as a flaw, as something that keeps its audience at arm’s length, but as a unifying truth. The alien, descending on a small wingnut-like platform mirroring a widget from a busted jalopy, is not so far from us. 

He might—like Space Cadets Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan) or Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards) or Wes Anderson—feel more content “outside the Earth’s atmosphere.” He might feel more comfortable in a small circle of peers on his highly particular wavelength, playing memory games with references to famous figures. (One can imagine the culturally reverential Anderson doing this at a dinner party). He may also, like Clifford (Aristou Meehan) the teenage personification of Jackass, need someone to notice his antics, just so he feels like he exists at all. But all of that is ironically human. We strive to understand and to be understood, though neither seems particularly possible. The contradictory push-pull of togetherness and isolation is the melancholy truth of existence.

Woodrow and Dinah’s worn-down parents—war photographer/recent widower Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and movie starlet/single mother Midge (Scarlett Johansson)—have become hyper-focused on that reality. Midge, a talented comedienne mostly cast, in reference to plenty of the era’s stars, as abused alcoholics, has made a career out of being misunderstood. Augie, bearing a shrapnel scar in the back of his head and the pain of his wife’s death on his face, has seen plenty of trauma and adopted premature rigor mortis as a defense mechanism. When a mushroom cloud plumes near Augie’s family, he snaps a shot without batting an eye. They are, in Midge’s words, “two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of their pain because we don’t want to.” 

But they do want. Their affair might be crisp, stymied and mostly implied—the majority of their relationship is conducted through neighboring motel bungalow windows—but it still happens, and its potential leaves a small note of hope behind at the film’s conclusion. They may be stuck between their craving for connection and their hopelessness that any connection could ever be made, but they keep trying.

Back in the framing story, the actors playing these characters are similarly stuck, this time between themselves and those who are creating their worlds. Mercedes Ford (Johansson) tries to abandon the production before opening night, only wooed back by a trio of personal letters from her director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). Jones Hall (Schwartzman), after emotionally and sexually connecting with Earp, still can’t grasp what’s going on. In a sorrowful, religious moment, the actor tells his director “I don’t understand the play,” then desperately asks “Am I doing it right?” Green, with equal artistic piety, replies “It doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”

Though at least one character in the play loses his faith after seeing an alien, it’s in the framing story that Asteroid City makes its most existential claims. Attempting to reach greater truth, or at least some feeling that rips you out of the monotony of everyday life, is the Lee Strasberg inverse Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe) and his acting class. Where does he want his students to find authentic answers? Well, in the opposite fashion of Strasberg, from “the outside in.” It’s a cheeky joke and a sweeping statement about art’s essential place in our lives.

The class culminates in the entire cast chanting a mantra somewhere between The Method and The Matrix: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” It’s an evocative, showstopping moment that’s the ultimate, in-your-face example of Anderson abandoning subtlety. Art can confront our loneliness, and our attempt to live life correctly, and our ongoing search for meaning—if we just allow it. We can realize grand truths from false things, made by architects obscuring their intentions, because there is a freedom to something we know isn’t real. Interpretation is one of our most potent metaphysical tools. But waking up, having the epiphanies offered by the red pill, is only half the prescription. The other half is keeping your search alive during your joyful, imaginative dreams.

One of Asteroid City’s most moving scenes is that between Hall, the actor playing Augie, and the actress (Margot Robbie) who was cast and then cut from playing Augie’s dead wife. They, like Augie and Midge, have a distanced conversation hedged in fiction. She runs through her scene, which she’s memorized, that explains some of Augie’s inner hurt, which Jones never quite understood in the first place. A cut character performing a lost scene, unlocking everything for her scene partner and moving us to tears with an illusion five levels deep—a perfect illustration of unreality’s power. 

In Anderson’s lovely, hilarious, heartbreaking collage of play, movie and production drama, he’s isolated the unsatisfying yet inescapable relationship between performing, creating and the vague idea that combines the two: Living. The townspeople look to the cosmos, the actors playing them look to God (or the closest thing to God they’ve got) and we, the audience watching it all, look to a movie about the creation of yearning art and that artwork’s ability to assuage our ceaseless spiritual ache. Anderson makes these stars align.

Asteroid City comes to a close by reminding us of its aesthetic and thematic connection to our most Sisyphean Looney Tunes series. Its puppeteered Road Runner does a little dance as the credits roll, as absurdly unaffected by the world-shaking events around it as if it’d dodged an arsenal of anvils, safes and grand pianos. But with this silly meep-meeping bird, there is an absence. Where’s the coyote? Where is the fruitlessness? Who’s doing the chasing? If we can’t see Wile E. in Asteroid City, perhaps it’s because we’re the ones on the endless, futile quest. The hunt may make fools of us, and of Acme’s most ingenious technological creations, but we have no other choice: We have to keep telling our story.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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