Wes Anderson’s films often play with a disconnect between their cheerful storybook visual style and their more somber subject matter and themes. Asteroid City is perhaps the starkest example of this trademark. Following a dizzying framing narrative that situates the story as a play within a documentary within a television program, an upbeat and immaculately-composed title sequence follows a train through a vivid desert while Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boy’s “Last Train to San Fernando” plays.
The upbeat jazz/bluegrass warble fits the painted desert perfectly, but its repeated refrain (“If you miss this one, you’ll never get another one”) lends the song a deeply melancholy tone; the song, like the film, is about last chances.
Asteroid City is a film about grief, though that goes without saying in a Wes Anderson movie. Specifically, though, it’s a film about two people—Jason Schwartzman’s Augie Steenbeck and Scarlett Johansson’s Midge Campbell—left directionless by their grief and in danger of doing irreparable harm to themselves (Midge speaks calmly of suicide as a functional inevitability, while Augie admits very recent thoughts of abandoning his family). The titular Asteroid City and the otherworldly encounter they experience, the film’s music and script suggest, is their last opportunity to avoid destruction. A sign from the heavens descends; as Johnny Duncan sang at the beginning of the film, “If you miss this one, you’ll never get another one.”
The descent of the alien at the film’s midpoint is a kind of divine revelation, a sign from the heavens to those desperately in need of one (it descends out of a light in the sky, down among the people, before ascending again; a child later writes a song about the experience called, “Dear Alien, Who Art in Heaven”). The characters who see the alien know they witnessed something paradigm-changing, something so cosmically significant that it has to matter for their own lives.
But how, exactly? The creature descends, takes the town’s titular asteroid, poses briefly for Augie’s picture, then leaves. What does any of this mean? The characters are left to stew on this question, on their personal issues, and on the intersections between these things, while under the immediate government quarantine that follows.
Watching these characters struggle to make sense of a divine revelation with unclear meaning, I thought of Martin Luther, and his distinction between “God hidden” (Deus absconditus) and “God revealed” (Deus revelatus). For Luther, God’s infinite greatness over humanity means that even when God reveals himself, He remains hidden from us; God’s revelation is both illuminating and confusing. We have faith in God because God has revealed himself to be good and loving through Christ, but we also know that God is working in fearsome, terrible ways that we don’t understand and that seem to contradict the goodness revealed in Christ.
What do we make of a God who so loves the world that he gives it his only-begotten son, who desires that none should perish, but who also predestines countless to eternal damnation, who sends plagues and earthquakes and wars into the world he supposedly loves? The answer, for Luther, is beyond human comprehension. We can only cling to that which God has revealed to us, all the while quaking at that which God has not. Christ is good; is that the end of the story? For Luther, we can’t say; we can only hope. God is incomprehensible, and for that reason, His revelation is only partially understandable at best.
Luther, I think, would be at home in Asteroid City. He would be at home among the junior stargazers excitedly conspiring to share this miracle with the rest of the world, and he would be at home with the dour military men who fear the danger the alien might portend. He would be most at home, though, with Augie, who near the end of the film stops playing his character, leaves the play’s set, and confronts the director, asking for an evaluation of his performance and begging him to explain what it all means.
Luther would be at home too, I think, in the director’s shoes, as he tells Augie that his understanding of the play is less important than his willingness to engage in it: “Doesn’t matter [what the play means]. Just keep telling the story.” This acceptance of insecurity and continuation in faith despite itself reminds me of a sermon Luther gave on the Canaanite woman in Mark 7, where he states:
When we feel in our conscience that God rebukes us as sinners and judges us unworthy of the kingdom of heaven, then we experience hell, and we think we are lost forever. Now whoever understands here the actions of this poor woman and catches God in his own judgment, and says: Lord, it is true, I am a sinner and not worthy of thy grace; but still thou hast promised sinners forgiveness, and thou art come not to call the righteous, but, as St. Paul says, “to save sinners.”
God’s revelation in Christ, for Luther, is something that must be grasped and proclaimed against all else, even against seemingly contradictory revelation from God. The Cannanite woman is an exemplar of faith because she can assert God’s promises to God himself; Augie, similarly, finds the strength to return to the play even when its director refuses to explain the meaning to him. In the play, Augie begins a reconciliation with his wife’s family, and Midge leaves him her address, seemingly pausing her overdose plans for the time being.
Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boy’s warning is heeded, it seems; Augie and Midge may not have understood the message, but they were changed by it nonetheless.
I didn’t find this ending satisfying on my first viewing, to be honest. I don’t find Luther’s bifurcated understanding of revelation satisfying either. I can’t think of it without also thinking of Karl Barth’s rejection of it in the second volume of Church Dogmatics. In short, though God is indeed infinitely greater than humanity, God’s totality is revealed in Christ, not simply in one part of God; there is no “hidden God” other than the one made known in Christ.
The movie won me over on second viewing when I realized that Augie’s perspective on the events, his confusion leading into a begrudging existential acceptance, is not the only one present. The film even jokes about this early on, when he finally tells his children of their mother’s death, and suggests, “Let’s say she’s in heaven, which doesn’t exist for me, of course, but you’re Episcopalian.”
Indeed, Augie’s son and the other junior stargazers immediately feel an almost apostolic conviction to share their alien encounter with the world. The younger “space cadets” are likewise enthralled, and Tex and the other locals are more than happy to join the children in their celebrations. For every character left confounded by the extraterrestrial encounter, another receives it immediately with joy.
The alien, this sign from heaven, is confusing, sure; but the play’s director encourages Augie to “tell the story anyway.” For as dark and strange as Asteroid City is, it’s thematic core is optimistic: God’s goodness does not rely on our ability to understand or anticipate it, and our confusion provides yet more opportunities for God to show us benevolence (“You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep!” the actors chant in the film’s climax).
Asteroid City as a film expresses a conviction that God speaks, but questions whether that speech is intelligible. Still, the fact of God’s speaking at all, clear or not, is a remarkable enough thing that it must be repeated and considered over and over.
As Christians, faith allows us to take this conviction and move it a step forward: God speaks, and God says “yes” to humanity, “yes” to relationship with us, “yes” to our salvation despite our unworthiness. God loves Augie and Midge, and both benefit from the alien’s strange descent well before they understand it.
Still, though, the best kind of person to be in Asteroid City is a child, who sees the alien and experiences it with simple joy. Through faith, we answer the question from the child’s song, “Are you friend or foe?” with the answer, “Friend!”
But even when we can’t do that, even when, like Augie and Midge, doubt and confusion crowd out all room for joy, God still works for our good. Johnny Duncan was wrong after all; there is no “last chance” to experience God’s mercy, no pit of despair so deep God will not descend into it with us like an alien into a crater.
After all, you can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.