Nuclear bombs keep going off over the horizon of Asteroid City (population 87). “Another atom bomb test,” the characters declare, with some combination of intrigue and boredom. They trot out of the diner to look at the tiny mushroom cloud, snap a few pictures, and go back inside for more coffee. It’s 1955. This isn’t unusual anymore.
Living in the shadow of the bombs is what Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City is about — literal bombs, and also a host of other life-shattering things like loss, and existential dread, and a world changing so fast it’s hard to hang on to it. Real things, in other words, the kind everyone has to deal with. The emotions we can’t outrun, but we try to anyhow.
That Anderson set Asteroid City in 1955 is a bit of trickery, a degree of separation between the characters’ reality and our own. We live in (dare I say) uniquely frightening times, but so do these people, for whom the Cold War and a rapidly changing social order is their psychic wallpaper. Much of the movie is specifically set in September 1955, a month bookended by two events: the United States’ decision to embark on Project Vanguard, which would try unsuccessfully to beat the Soviets at putting a satellite into space; and the tragic car accident that took the life of James Dean, the iconic actor who embodied the rising rebellion of the youth. (I don’t think it’s an accident that a cop car in hot pursuit of a careening vehicle keeps rushing through the town’s one intersection.)
“If you wanted to live a nice, quiet, peaceful life, you picked the wrong time to get born,” General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) exhorts a crowd of teenagers and their parents, assembled in Asteroid City to celebrate the landing of a meteorite there thousands of years earlier. The children have entered their wildly advanced science experiments in a contest, which the military plans to snap up; the space race is in their eyes. Later, when things go south, youths are interrogated in a manner suspiciously reminiscent of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Grown men fight, and others try to calm them down by reminding them, “We’re not in Guadalcanal anymore.”
It feels reminiscent of something real, but this is also all fiction — as the movie’s narrator puts it, “an apocryphal fabrication.” Fiction puts a layer between us and real history, a way of looking at the past through different eyes. It has another function, too: Through fiction, we process our emotions by proxy, whether we’re the artists or the audience.
That’s the subject of Asteroid City, which nests fiction inside of fiction inside of fiction. (I promise it’s easier to watch than it sounds.) Here is the most succinct description of the levels of its made-up-ness: It is a scripted movie that pretends to be a TV show in which actors stage a fictionalized version of the making of a play telling the fictional story of a place that doesn’t exist. We also see the play, but it is shot like a movie. (I am Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.)
The central, in-color plot of the film centers on the group gathered in Asteroid City for a three-day meteorite celebration when their lives are upended by a, shall we say, unexpected visitor. But Asteroid City actually introduces itself to us as an old-school anthology TV show, shot in black and white, hosted by a sonorous host (Bryan Cranston). What we’re about to see, he gravely tells us, is the story behind the making of a play called Asteroid City, about a place that doesn’t exist. It’s both an apocryphal fabrication and an “authentic look into the work of a theatrical production.”
What follows intercuts the color story — which turns out to be kind of a hyperreal version of the “play,” which we see shot as a film — and black-and-white scenes, often staged like little mini-plays, about various moments during Asteroid City’s production. (The play, not the movie we’re watching. If you need a walk or a stiff drink right now, that’s fine.)
This all means that in this movie Scarlett Johansson, for instance, plays an actress who plays an actress playing an actress. Similarly, Jason Schwartzman — the closest to a lead this absurdly stacked cast has — plays an actor who is desperate to figure out the motivations of his character, a war photographer who burns his hand on a sandwich iron. (Schwartzman is styled to reference several famous actors, perhaps most significantly a very famous photo of James Dean.)
Piling on these layers, each with its own combination of artifice and “authenticity,” is where Anderson shows what he’s doing. He’s interested in those piles. The impossible pursuit of authentic emotion through making art that can never really be all that “real” is one of Asteroid City’s themes; a fair amount of the film dwells on an acting class and its students, who are trying, in the style of The Actors Studio and “the method,” to find ways to give authentic performances in the very contrived medium of the theater.
But there’s an added layer to what Anderson’s after. Humans have always processed their feelings through art, but modernity adds a wrench to the whole existence thing. There’s an aspect of alienation — of feeling as if the machines and inventions we build, which are terrifying enough to be able to wipe us out (like the bomb) or seemingly to take over our world altogether (like, say, generative AI), are estranging us from one another and even from ourselves. Art has always been the counterbalance to this, which is in part why groups like The Actors Studio sprung up in the early part of the 20th century. If you are working at a desk all day clacking on a typewriter, or operating a machine, or building a bureaucracy that might work like a machine, then going to the theater is supposed to jolt you back to remembering that you, at least, are not a machine.
It’s tantamount to either a confession or an explanation from someone like Anderson, whose work employs considerable artifice in its pursuit of authenticity. I confess that I don’t really like Anderson’s style, and have not loved most of his movies. It took me two viewings to really figure out Asteroid City. But I do admire that he’s an artist whose aesthetic is so firmly defined that even non-cinephiles can make poor imitations of his work using AI; in fact, it’s those replicas’ inability to actually latch onto the emotion that powers his work (the melancholy, the grief, the impishness) that make me appreciate him more.
That’s what I came to appreciate about this movie, and the more I think about it, the more wise I think it is. In Asteroid City, Anderson builds several worlds mediated by layers of performance, artifice, and technology, in which nonetheless real humans grieve, long for one another, fall in love, get hurt, and feel wonder. The layers they’ve put between themselves and their emotions crack and crumble. Their worlds are rocked, which leaves them thinking about things like the meaning of life, the existence of God, and whether they’re as alone as they feel like they are. The answer, he suggests, is found by sinking into the apocryphal fabrications of the artist’s imagination. “You can’t wake up,” the characters chant near the end of the movie, “if you don’t fall asleep.”
Asteroid City is playing in theaters.