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.