Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City begins with a control room: a large window over a row of monitors and technical consoles. Through the window, we see a stage, a crew, and two cameras. We are not in a spacecraft; we are in a television studio. A figure appears in the central monitor and draws the camera closer—a stage within a monitor within a screen. The figure is a television host introducing a program that documents the production of an American play from its inception to its eventual performance. Past the monitor and the window, we face the host head-on as he takes us into the play’s first read-through.
The play, like the film, is called Asteroid City. It’s a drama about grief and the unexplainable set in the titular town. The town is built around a 100-foot crater, a gaping basin that has scarred the ground for 5,000 years. There’s one road into town and one road out. And there’s one of everything else, too, in this picturesque place: a service station, a luncheonette, a motel, a telephone booth, a highway ramp that goes nowhere, a mushroom cloud billowing in the distance. Asteroid City, though, is not a real play. I mean, of course it’s not; this is a movie. But even within the movie, Asteroid City is a play made up for the television program whose production we are watching.
Asteroid City is not the first Anderson film to make both diegetic storytelling and the story’s framing part of the film, but it is his most direct attempt. In Rushmore, theater curtains mark the passing months. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, there are the diegetic documentary films being made within the film. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, nested stories within stories illuminate the wounds history can carry. In The French Dispatch, the film is a magazine issue, made up of distinct reported pieces, including an animated set piece. When we think of Anderson’s films, we might think of his meticulously designed sets, the symmetrical, planimetric framing, and the lateral tracking shots. But just as crucial to his art is Anderson’s preoccupation with the materials of storytelling, with how a film becomes a film.
Set in 1955, the film toggles between a New York City theater, where a new play is being produced, and a one-road town in the West, where the play is set. Though the television studio’s production frames the play, it is the play’s structure that then structures the film. The play is broken into three acts, and each return to Asteroid City is introduced with a title card that orients us within the play (for example, “Act 1: Scenes vi-ix”). The black-and-white backstage interludes interrupt the play’s proceedings, rather than the other way around.
At the core of Asteroid City, the play, are the Steenbecks and their broken-down station wagon. Augie is the father (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer. There are three daughters, Andromeda, Pandora, and Cassiopeia (Ella Faris, Gracie Faris, and Willan Faris), and one son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan). The stitching on Woodrow’s shirt spells “brainiac,” and he’s the reason the family is in town. Asteroid City is the site of an award ceremony for five Junior Stargazers, each accompanied by a parent, who have invented devices that are of interest to the US military, and Woodrow is among them. Woodrow’s invention is an advancement in “astronomical imaging,” a device that can project an image on the moon.
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As the rest of the weekend’s players arrive, the camera pans laterally through the town. There are the other Junior Stargazers and their parents, including Dinah and her mother, the famous actor Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). A bus drops off a teacher (Maya Hawke) with 10 8-year-olds and a musical group of cowboys led by Montana (Rupert Friend). The landscape is scenic but not tied to the strictures of realism; the backgrounds fade into flatness like painted backdrops. We land on Augie sitting with his children and about to tell them their mother has died. For two weeks, he has held back the truth as a way of holding back a world where she is really gone. Denial is a kind of everyday fiction, marking one element among Anderson’s exploration of stories as the opening of a frame or a stage that can be controlled.
The weekend festivities begin with Asteroid Day, the anniversary of the day that a meteorite made impact with the arid plains. And aside from a celebration of the five brainiacs, the weekend itinerary involves a tour of the observatory, built next to the crater; a picnic supper; the viewing of a phenomenon called an “astronomical ellipsis”; and the awarding of a scholarship. At first, all seems to be going to plan: The brainiacs receive individual recognition; some of the parents discover a vending machine that makes a perfect martini (there’s a vending machine that sells land, too); and the Steenbeck girls bury their mother’s ashes in the desert sand next to the communal showers. Augie also begins to come out of his shell: He connects with Midge Campbell. Both are artists hiding their hurt behind deadpan affects. They sit at their windows in adjoining cabins and talk across the desert space between them.
As the plot thickens in Asteroid City, the framing of the film falls away. We know we are watching a fake play, but it is presented in a three-dimensional space, making use of cinematic techniques, and it feels as real as anything else in an Anderson film. But then everything comes to a head. Everyone is gathered in the crater, with a cardboard box over their head so that they can witness an astrological ellipsis—in which the sun, the moon, and the Milky Way line up along a single plane. Dr. Hickenlooper explains how it works: “What you are going to see is a very simple dot, dot, dot.” But after the three dots, a fourth appears, glowing green, and it grows closer until it becomes, clearly, a flying saucer. It hovers over the crater and sheds a green light over everything. A spindly extraterrestrial descends on the ceremony and departs with the meteor, leaving all the observers stunned. End of Act I.
Meanwhile, back in New York, we see some of the acting legends behind the show’s stage. We are in an acting class that harks back to the famous Actors Studio, led by Lee Strasberg, that trained actors such as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Sidney Poitier, and Paul Newman. We meet Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), the author of the play, as well as Jones Hall (Schwartzman) and Mercedes Ford (Johansson), who play Augie and Midge, and Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), the eccentric director who sleeps in the theater for every night of its run, whether because of his insane dedication or because his wife had “left him for an all-star second baseman.” If there is a discrepancy between the story’s framings, it’s that the interludes to the 1950s New York theater world are more vignettes than a story, and they hang over the film like a curtain waiting to fall.
Back in Asteroid City, the story proceeds at full pace. The town has been thrown into quarantine. Military personnel encircle the town. The Junior Stargazers try to contact the outside world. The teacher tries to teach her regular lessons, but learning about Neptune feels a little silly when you have come face to face with the unknown. One of the parents buys a tract of desert land. Soon we are projected into the future: Word has gotten out about the alien heist, and a robust tourism industry already bustles around the town. Students and cowboys sing a song about the alien. Meanwhile, the Junior Stargazers are trying to find a way to contact it.
Asteroid City, the film, though, keeps reminding us that we are watching a fake production of a fake play. When Jones Hall first auditions for the playwright, the scene ends with their embrace and the camera drifts right, showing the walls of a soundstage. The audition is not real either—it is on a film set. In a later scene, the camera pans over slowly from the theater space to reveal the host standing there—“Oh, am I not in this scene?” he asks. We are not seeing a holiday weekend gone awry, and we are not watching the filming of a play and its tortured creators. Nor are we watching a television program about either or both of these worlds. Anderson keeps showing us the seams of the production but otherwise plays each scene with emotional sincerity.
Anderson’s meticulous formalism often mirrors his protagonists’ desire to exert some control over worlds that might fall apart. This lack of control often originates from a core hurt—a divorce, the loss of a parent, the disappearance of a mentor or a loved one. His films assert a constructedness, a sense of controlled storytelling in the face of these narratives that are often beyond human mastery. In Asteroid City, though, despite Augie’s emotional laconism, the urge to control is rendered as an external force: the US military, which tries and fails to contain the town and impose its own reality. Soundstage, screenplay, and the host’s narration are another form of external structure, and one that is undermined by what even fiction can’t control.
For Anderson, though, the limits of control are part of the point. When we peel back the layer, no matter how realistic it seems, we see another stage, another rehearsal, a camera, a monitor, the story behind the story, a fiction within the fiction. This is filmmaking: Everything we are seeing is artifice, but the fact that this artifice is too personal, never final, never fully in our control, is what makes it real. And what makes it accessible to interpretations that cannot be determined in advance.
Asteroid City is about stories held within frames—window frames, camera frames, the frames that hold a stage together, the frames of an exercise or scene; it is about the structures that exist outside of us, but also about their limits, and that however much we try to control our stories, they have a life of their own. Even in fiction, the lives we live and create can break free of the theater in which we stage them. When Jones, the actor, breaks from his performance as Augie and walks backstage, he sees an actor at the makeup station who claims that the role of the extraterrestrial is metaphorical. What does he symbolize? Jones wonders. The actor says, “I don’t know yet. We don’t pin it down.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Edward Norton plays the role of a playwright.