Asteroid City and the events that take place in it aren’t real, as the movie Asteroid City (2023) is so fond of reminding us. But Wes Anderson’s film, centred around a stargazer convention for junior astronomers, draws from a wealth of actual movies and real-life people. Its play-within-a-television-programme-with-a-movie-structure is made even more nebulous by how recognisable the film makes its references, from Satyajit Ray to Harrison Ford. Here’s a geek’s guide to Asteroid City:
Bryan Cranston's character, the unnamed host of a black-and-white television series, bears some resemblance to Rod Serling, host of the American sci-fi anthology, The Twilight Zone . While Serling usually introduced worlds with a distinctly unrealistic sheen to conjure up suspense and horror, Cranston peels back the layers of artifice on the events of Asteroid City, pointing out the reality that has conjured up the fantasy.
War photographer Augie Steenbeck shares a name with the Steenbeck suite, a machine used to edit 16 mm and 35 mm film.
Once the alien descends into the desert, grabs a meteorite and flees, the stargazers are baffled by what they’ve seen but don’t attribute any malicious intent to the UFO. Instead, soon after, there is an alien-themed carnival in Asteroid City, with alien-themed games and alien-themed merchandise. The scene calls to mind Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole, in which tourists flock to an Albuquerque desert, where a local man is trapped inside a cliffside cave, after a reporter publishes a story about his plight. As they await rescue operations, the site is slowly turned into a carnival in the meantime, with food stalls and rides.
Steven Spielberg features in the credits list of Asteroid City, a film that references his Close Encounters of The Third Kind, in which an alien landing becomes a mass attraction. The Asteroid City desert even features a rock formation that resembles the Devil’s Tower rock featured in Spielberg’s film.
A roadrunner appears several times during the film, pausing only to produce a ‘beep-beep’ sound and then dash off, much like in the classic cartoon. Early on, a student says their school bus ran over a coyote on the way to Asteroid City, which lends credence to why the roadrunner is able to pop up so casually – there’s no predator it needs to run from anymore.
Asteroid City writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) handpicks Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) to play the character of Augie Steenbeck in his still-in-progress play after Jones delivers some ice cream to his house and asks pointed, poignant questions about the character. This chance meeting echoes that of Harrison Ford and George Luas. Casting director Fred Roos was convinced Ford would make a great Han Solo after first noticing him in the Sixties and trying to aid his acting career. To facilitate an encounter with director George Lucas, Roos hired Ford, a former carpenter, to build a door for the American Zoetrope offices, where Lucas was holding casting calls. His plan worked and Ford got the role.
Slim Whitman’s 1952 song ‘Indian Love Call’ appears in Asteroid City after a scene in which primary school teacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke) attempts to reassure her students, with each of them peppering her with an endless litany of questions following their encounter with the alien. In Tim Burton’s film, this same song causes the invading Martians’ brains to explode, which is how a character is ultimately able to save the Earth. The “America is at peace” part of June’s speech also echoes the Martians’ “We come in peace” phrase, the only English-language one they know.
Willem Dafoe's character, the acting teacher Saltzburg Keitel, seems to be modelled on American theatre director Lee Strasberg. Echoes of Strasberg are felt most acutely during a scene in which Keitel asks his students to pretend to fall asleep, mirroring the director's methods of checking how relaxed his students were.
Sitting in a circle, the ‘brainiac’ students in Asteroid City play a memory game. Each must remember the names of famous people chosen by their peers, in a particular order, while also adding their own pick to the end. The list thus grows longer with each successive turn. This mirrors a scene in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri, in which a group of friends play the same game in the forest. While the brainiacs can go on for hours without a slip-up, it doesn’t take long for the friends in Aranyer Din Ratri to lose.
Jones Hall, (Jason Schwartzman) the actor playing Augie Steenbeck, pulls his sweater over his face in the acting studio, which seems to reference this photo of James Dean.
Augie's romance with actress Midge Campbell could be an oblique reference to Robert Capa and Ingrid Bergman's affair. Both men are war photographers, both women are actresses. Capa wasn't a widower, but Bergman was married (and with child). She was also incredibly famous when they had the affair, much like Midge.