In Wes Anderson’s new movie Asteroid City, an eclectic group of young people and their families converge on a tiny, Roswell-like town in the desert for a conference of Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets. Then, there’s a cosmic event that real student astronomers could only dream of (or joke about): A spacecraft abruptly descends, and an alien pays them a visit.
Asteroid City, the fictional town, is the nucleus of the film, cowritten by Anderson and Roman Coppola. And the life-transforming, world-changing event in the middle of it offers a new perspective on the idea of aliens as metaphors. Is this concept unique? No, it goes back to at least H. G. Wells. But in Asteroid City, presented as a play-within-a-play, written by a Tennessee Williams-like character played by Edward Norton, the close-encounter motif becomes something else: a familiar place (a Wes Anderson movie) that moviegoers can travel to and not feel quite so alienated.
When Anderson’s extraterrestrial first appears, the townspeople are stunned but blasé. War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) merely notes that the alien stole the famous meteorite on display. But then he and the rest of Asteroid City’s residents begin to process its significance. Later Steenbeck tells the actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johanssen), who like him is struggling with her mental health, “Did you see the way it looked at us? Like we’re doomed.” In another scene, Steenbeck’s son comments, “The meaning of life, maybe there is one”—to which his grandfather (Tom Hanks) replies, “I hope you’re still Episcopalian.” An alien can make for a good punchline.
Characters in Anderson’s movies often appear disconnected, floundering as they try to emotionally interact with their scene-mates, and when they do show feeling, it seems like a breakthrough. For him, then, to make this kind of movie is a cunning twist, dropping an extraterrestrial (Jeff Goldblum) into a space full of alienated people and watching them try to figure out how to relate. Then he doubles down, bringing the military to Asteroid City to enforce a quarantine and compel the students, teachers, stargazers, and parents to reckon with the encounter on their own. The general is played by Jeffrey Wright, one of the few nonwhite actors in the film, or any Anderson film—a realization that seems stark when one considers that this is the movie with which Anderson has chosen to tackle otherness.
Anderson’s entry is the latest in a long line of movies that have sought to understand humanity through the lens of alien contact. While many of these involve a war for human survival, they’re not all that way. Science fiction has provided plenty of compelling stories where characters struggle with complicated interactions with the cosmic other, where an alien, unlike anything anyone has seen before, makes people react with shock, fear, curiosity, and kindness.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Contact, District 9, Arrival—these are all films about aliens, but not really. They’re reflections of the societies in which they’re made, mirrors of the persistent problems of xenophobia and racism, clashes between scientific perspectives and other worldviews, and the challenges of integrating vastly different cultures and languages. But in Anderson’s hands, the trope is used to shift the characters’ views, and for the children and those with more myopic perspectives, it nudges them toward developing a worldview in the first place.
While sci-fi has frequently explored fears of outsiders perceived as threats, there’s room for a more lighthearted take on aliens as well. That’s rarer, but not unprecedented, at least on television. In Futurama, Zoidberg became the alien at Roswell, where he annoys and horrifies his captors but enjoys meeting new people, and in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it’s the Ferengi, who are surprised how 20th-century humans poison their bodies and pollute their planet but see a business opportunity on Earth.
In Asteroid City, the extraterrestrial is just Goldblum in an alien suit. It looks as skittish and as inquisitive as the people transfixed by it, but doesn’t say a word or utter a sound before quickly leaving, making it more of an enigma. Offstage (remember, this is a play-within-a-play), Goldblum says the alien is a metaphor, but of what, he isn’t sure.
Anderson doesn’t quite convey as effectively or explicitly as, say, Contact how alien encounters can serve as catalysts for the audience to develop a more inclusive view of humanity and a vision of a future where people don’t succumb to fear. His characters have too much work to do for Asteroid City to get that far. It’s primarily the stargazers, like Steenbeck’s son and Campbell’s daughter, who are more ready than their parents to communicate with the alien outsider and conceive of a meaning for life. As he has done before in The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson shows how parents sometimes have little understanding of the challenges their children face, which are often different from their own.
Like the fantastical sea creatures conjured up in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Anderson inserts details that draw the audience’s eye, making the theatrical 1950s-era, Roswell-like world of Asteroid City like our own, but a bit different. For example, it includes a jetpack the young proto-scientists invented, a “galactotron,” which isn’t a real type of telescope, and not-quite-scientific-sounding terminology, like the “celestial flirtation” of galaxies. The alien, meanwhile, looks humanoid, but also not like humans at all.
Pop culture representations of aliens and public interest in space and UFOs seem to go hand-in-hand. While the X-Files was in the zeitgeist, many people were not only obsessed with flying saucers but were convinced that the government was hiding them somewhere. Asteroid City may not inspire new alien truthers, but it does land at a time when a UFO “whistleblower” and former intelligence officer has the ear of Congress, the Pentagon has opened a new office tasked with investigating UFO reports, an independent, UFO-assessing committee set up by NASA is holding public meetings ahead of its final report, and a private company is releasing a UFO report-tracking app.
The movie also comes amidst society’s ongoing interest in listening for alien signals, called the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, and in sending messages of our own into the cosmos, called messaging extraterrestrial intelligence, or METI. This work, too, gets a nod in Asteroid City in the form of an astronomer played by Tilda Swinton who watches for beeps and blips that could be alien signals from space, and works with the Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets to figure out what kind of message to send to the aliens. Frank Drake and Carl Sagan they are not, but their intentions are the same.
Beyond the obvious Roswell references, there’s something fitting about setting an alien sighting in an old-timey desert town like Asteroid City. Some of the most exquisite views of the night sky, unhindered by light pollution, can be found in the American Southwest, and the timeless quality of the landscape reminds us of humanity’s never-ending search for meaning. It’s not clear whether Anderson really pulls off the alien metaphor, but he gives us, like his characters, a lot to ponder.