“Let’s work on the scene from the outside in. Be inert. Then dream.”

So says acting teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe) to the cast of Asteroid City, a play penned by playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Gathered for a “special seminar” at Earp’s request, the actors are asked to workshop a scene in which, following an alien encounter at a youth astronomy convention in the “California/Nevada/Arizona desert,” the characters they play are thrust into a dreamlike state in which they begin to “occupy a space of the most peculiar emotional dimensions.”

This seminar—one of various episodes depicting the play’s production—is sandwiched within the mise-en-abyme that is Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, the film we’re watching. Even for Anderson, who’s no stranger to nesting-doll narratives, the layering of realities is dense: Asteroid City is a film about a television programme about the making of a play, the story of which is then cinematically depicted. If we begin at the “bottom” level, one might say that the worlds in Asteroid City are extraterrestrial: each level of reality points upward and outward to another, which encompasses it (when asked what the play is about, Earp’s tentative reply is “infinity”). This vertiginous expanse of stacked, contingent realities renders each layer metaphysically unstable, unsettling the givenness of each reality. Augie Steenbeck—widower, war photojournalist, and father of four in the cinematic depiction of Asteroid City—is also Jones Hall the actor in the play, who is simultaneously Jones Hall the de facto small-screen star showcasing the theatrical process for television cameras, who is in turn played by actor Jason Schwartzman of the viewer’s world—all of which frames and complicates how the viewer sees Augie.

The discovery of extraterrestrial realms—realities beyond the immediate, familiar one—recontextualises the present reality, altering one’s experience of it; alien encounters turn the mundane itself alien. This “alienation” of everyday life is evoked by the phrase “most peculiar emotional dimensions,” and it is an experience that Asteroid City—and Anderson’s films in general—aesthetically reproduce for viewers. Marked by rectilinear compositions, mathematically precise camera movements, and fastidiously arranged bric-a-brac reminiscent of dollhouses and dioramas, Anderson’s movies are not only aesthetically appealing—they appeal to the idea of the aesthetic itself, of that which is visibly designed. They evince a hyper-self-conscious formalism whose raison d’être is denaturalisation and defamiliarization—a making “peculiar” of physical bodies, objects, and spaces.

In a way, the Saltzburg quote that opens this essay feels like a fitting description of Anderson’s style. The concept of the aesthetic is connotatively proximate to the notion of the cosmetic, or the cultivation of outward appearances (see, for example, the verb “aestheticise”). In this regard, Anderson’s films do operate “from the outside in.” They flaunt the constructedness of their mise-en-scènes, asserting the primacy of external, visible style over plot and drama; Asteroid City’s opening scene evokes this centripetal trajectory in the way it moves through the concentric layers of the film’s mise-en-abyme, from “outer” to “inner.” In Anderson’s movies, narrative and dramatic developments are palpably circumscribed by the artifice of his built, nested environments—an impression the characters themselves reinforce through their mannered, deadpan performances. Before they are people with inner lives, they are part of Anderson’s rigorous aesthetic scheme. Furthermore, in Saltzburg’s words, this scheme involves a process of making “inert”—an ossifying of the contingency and flux of reality into the timeless present of the perfectly calibrated aesthetic object (as one character asks regarding a digital readout that may be a celestial clock tuned to a cosmic timescale: “is it always today?”).

And yet, this fixity is not final. In appearing so scrupulously calibrated, Anderson’s films paradoxically foreground the process of calibration itself—the temporality and labour of artistic creation. Transformation in the past opens up the possibility of transformation in the future, of a reality different from our current one. At the centre of the filmmaker’s work is this tension between stasis and change, and, relatedly, between visible surfaces and invisible depths—between a hyper-controlled visual field and the unruly desires, pains, and passions that course beneath and around it, resisting schematisation. Asteroid City, like Anderson’s other films, is populated with souls who are hurt and lost, their emotional expressions straitjacketed by repressive machinations of their own or others’ devising. “[We are] two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of their pain because…we don’t want to,” one character intones, articulating the plight of numerous characters across Anderson’s oeuvre and providing a thematic complement to the director’s simultaneously affected and affecting aesthetic—affecting precisely because it’s so affected.

Significantly, this moment of emotional perspicuity occurs after the alien’s first appearance, suggesting once more how contact with the strange can reorganise one’s sense of the ordinary. Parallels can be drawn with the viewer’s own experience of Asteroid City, whose defamiliarizing artifice prompts them to see—and, as Saltzburg might put it, to “dream”—reality differently. Art itself has a longstanding association with denaturalisation and expanded perception, with works that are contemplated and beheld rather than unthinkingly incorporated into everyday practical activity. Although the purported divide between art and the pragmatics of living has been amply challenged in aesthetic theory, there remains an affinity between the idea of the aesthetic and the act of confrontation; an aesthetic experience involves not the passive perception of the world but an induced, heightened awareness that things are arranged a particular way and possess a particular form. In inviting the beholder to perceive differently than how they’re accustomed, art has the capacity to recalibrate perception, to reframe their conception of reality. Asteroid City, in its overdetermined focus on forms of defamiliarization (the mise-en-abyme, the meticulous mise-en-scène, the figure of the alien) and the “peculiar emotional dimensions” that result, is both an aesthetic object in this sense and “about” the aesthetic experience itself.

“I think I see how I see us.” This profound remark, which is made seconds before the observation about wounded people, expresses an interweaving of perception and thought, in which the defamiliarization and broadening of ordinary perception (“I see how I see”) is bound up with reflection about this very process (“I think I see how I see”). This proliferation of meta-levels evokes the film’s own mise-en-abyme, suggesting the way Asteroid City itself may induce a similar cascade of recognition and realization, expanding both perception and thought. And it all begins with the alien, with an aesthetic encounter that, in making strange the familiar, yields new clarity.