In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Asteroid City, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- Augie Steenbeck/Jones Hall – Jason Schwartzman
- Woodrow Steenback – Jake Ryan
- Stanley Zak – Tom Hanks
- Midge Campbell/Mercedes Ford – Scarlett Johansson
- Dinah Campbell – Grace Edwards
- Host – Bryan Cranston
- Conrad Earp – Edward Norton
- Schubert Green – Adrien Brody
- Saltzburg Keitel – Willem Dafoe
- Dr. Hickenlooper – Tilda Swinton
- General Grif Gibson – Jeffrey Wright
- Roger Cho – Stephen Park – Roger Cho
- J. J. Kellogg – Liev Schreiber
- Maya Hawke – June Douglas
- Motel Manager – Steve Carell
- Hank – Matt Dillon
- Aide-De-Camp – Tony Revolori
- Actress/Steenback’s Wife – Margot Robbie
- Alien – Jeff Goldblum
- Written by – Wes Anderson
- Directed by – Wes Anderson
The themes and meaning of Asteroid City
The experience of engaging with narrative art
Right up front, Asteroid City presents us with a television program about a play called Asteroid City and the host tells us: Asteroid City does not exist. It is an imaginary drama created expressly for this broadcast. The characters are fictional. The text hypothetical. The events an apocryphal fabrication. But together they present an authentic account of a modern theatrical production.
The extra layer here is that we’re watching a movie. So it’s a movie about a TV program about “modern” theatrical production. That covers all three of the major mediums for visual narrative. So it feels like Wes Anderson is making a statement about the whole industry around film, TV, and theater. Not only the industry side of things but the audience as well. Together, creators and audience participate in the collective dream.
We see this idea of the collective dream reflected in the appearance of the alien. Everyone in Asteroid City has gathered to watch a Celestial Eclipse, only for a UFO to appear and an alien to descend, steal the meteor fragment, then leave. The alien is the story. It’s this outrageous, unbelievable thing that the whole group bears witness to. It’s there. They observe it. It leaves. Then they have to reckon with the aftermath of that. What does it mean to see such a thing? Did they really see it? How do you talk about it with others? How does that shared experience bond you? Inspire you? Redirect you?
Another aspect of this theme comes through when we see Augie’s actor, Jones Hall, leave the production of Asteroid City to find the director, Schubert Green, because Augie’s uncertain of his character’s motivations. Hall’s desire to understand, his need to know why his character, Augie Steenbeck, does certain things, should be familiar to audiences, whether they’ve acted before or not. Most of us have, while watching a TV show, movie, play, or even reading a novel, have wondered why a character made a certain choice. Or why the author took the story in a certain direction. You, reading this article, are probably here because of a similar curiosity. Creators as well as audience members often want some kind of concrete reason for what’s happening and why.
This is the conversation:
Schubert: Yes? What’s wrong? Are you on?
H: Technically, but General Gibson just started the scene where the president doesn’t accept his resignation. I’ve got six and a half minutes before my next line. I need an answer to a question I want to ask.
H: Am I doing him right?
S: Oh. Well, I told you before, there’s too much business—with the pipe, with the lighter, with the camera, with the eyebrow—but, aside from that, on the whole, sit down, you’re doing him just right. In fact, in my opinion, you didn’t just become Augie. He became you.
H: I feel lost.
H: He’s such a wounded guy. I feel like my heart is getting broken, my own personal heart, every night.
H: Do I just keep doing it?
H: Without knowing anything?
H: Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of an…answer out there in the cosmic wilderness, Woodrow’s line about the meaning of life!
S: Maybe there is one!
H: Right?! Well, that’s my question! … I still don’t understand the play.
S: Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story. You’re doing him right.
H: I need a breath of fresh air.
S: Okay. But you won’t find one.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, notice the reference to the cosmic wilderness and the idea of some kind of answer being out there. This gets back to what we were saying about the alien and how its appearance represents the act of engaging with narrative. You “see the alien” then wonder what the meaning is. It’s one thing to see the alien. It’s another thing to understand everything the alien implies.
Even though Hall is an actor, he’s still part of the audience. And he’s worried that not understanding the play will affect his performance and that a failed performance will somehow ruin the play. Schubert’s response gets into something we see with Hall’s whole character arc—how actors shape the story.
When we first see Hall as himself rather than as Augie, it’s his audition as Augie. He arrives at the playwright’s home and performs and inspires Earp. It wasn’t that Earp had the entire play already formed and each actor simply stepped into a fully realized role. Hall contributed to the formation of Augie and, by extension, the rest of the play. This is what Schubert meant by “you didn’t just become Augie. He became you.” However Hall plays Augie is right because Hall is Augie. His interpretations, his reactions, his choices are all valid.
The viewer is in a similar position to the actor, in the sense that your experience with the story shapes the story, makes the story, tells the story. You may not understand what the author intended but that doesn’t matter. What matters is your response to what’s happening. Your thoughts, your feelings. The meaning of it all—play, TV show, book, movie, life, whatever—isn’t something someone else tells you. It’s what you feel.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for discussion, conversation, learning, outside inspiration. Just that it’s okay to trust yourself, even when you doubt yourself.
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