CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977, Director Steven Spielberg)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a groundbreaking film that solidified the reputation of director Steven Spielberg (who had just come off of the making of Jaws, his first big hit) as a master storyteller and an accomplished maker of well-crafted blockbusters. Further, coming hard on the heels of the summer megahit Star Wars, Close Encounters ended the 1977 movie year with a rousing verification that science fiction film offered abundant opportunities for box-office success. Meanwhile, these two films would be quickly followed by a string of high quality, high profit SF films—including Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)—that together made the period from 1977 to 1982 the richest five-year span in the history of the genre.

Close Encounters is based on an original screenplay by Spielberg and has no other direct sources. However, in the making of the film Spielberg drew significantly upon UFO lore and in particular on the work of scientist J. Allen Hynek, who served as technical advisor on the film. Hynek’s 1972 book The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (based on his twenty years of work as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force investigating UFO sightings for Project Blue Book) is still regarded as a classic of the field and is, among other things, responsible for the terminology that gave the film its title. (Close Encounters of the First Kind involve close-range UFO sightings with no physical manifestations; Close Encounters of the Second Kind involve sightings and physical phenomena such burn marks or interference with electrical equipment; Close Encounters of the Third Kind involve sightings of actual aliens.)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind became, on its initial release, the largest grossing film in the history of Columbia Pictures, a success that bailed the company out of considerable financial difficulty and propelled director Spielberg to superstar status. The film also garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director nomination for Spielberg and a Best Special Visual Effects nomination for Douglas Trumbull and his effects crew. However, of these awards the film won only for the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, though it also won a special Oscar given to Frank Warner for sound effects editing. In addition to this initial success, the film has also shown considerable staying power and remains one of the most beloved and respected American science fiction films more than forty years after its first release.

Because of Columbia’s financial difficulties, Close Encounters was rushed into release in order to take advantage of the 1977 Christmas filmgoing season, even though both the studio and the director were unhappy with some aspects of the original theatrical cut. The film was rereleased to theaters in 1980 in a Special Edition that shortened some of the original scenes, but included a number of additional scenes that had been wanted by Spielberg; it also included one scene set in the interior of the main alien spacecraft that was insisted upon by the studio. The following discussion refers primarily to the Director’s Cut (originally released as the “Collector’s Edition” in 1997); this cut deletes the scene inside the alien craft but adds other material, pushing the overall runtime to 137 minutes.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins as United Nations investigators scramble to a site in the Sonora Desert of Mexico, where a group of World War II–vintage American airplanes has suddenly materialized as if out of nowhere. In the opening shot, we see two lights approaching as a desert sandstorm otherwise obscures vision. Many with some idea what the picture is about no doubt perceive these lights as UFOs, but, in a reversal of a kind that appears at several points in the film, they are in fact the lights of a jeep carrying some of the investigators, others of whom soon arrive in a station wagon. The investigators are led by Frenchman Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut), who has enlisted American cartographer David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) to translate for him because of his poor facility with English. They quickly determine that the planes were the ones that had been lost during a training mission (Flight 19) out of a naval air station in Ft. Lauderdale in 1945. The planes and their contents look brand new, and the engines are still in perfect working condition. There are no pilots or crew. An old man who supposedly saw what happened seems to be sunburned on one side of his face. He says that the sun came up during the night and sang to him.

This scene sets the tone of mystery that will continue throughout the film. Our contemporary inability to cope with mystery is then quickly emphasized in the next scene, in which an apparent UFO is spotted by pilots and air traffic controllers near Indianapolis. All involved decline to report the sighting and decide to ignore it, fearing that they will be regarded as crackpots. This attitude, meanwhile, is clearly meant to recall the official U.S. government policy of regarding the numerous reports of such sightings as lacking verification.

The film then cuts to a farmhouse in Muncie, Indiana, where a sleeping boy, Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey), is awakened by lights dancing on his face. The young boy, despite his name, is entirely without guile, and his innocence makes him open to phenomena that the more sophisticated adults in the previous scene chose to ignore. He looks toward an open window, while his mechanical toys all suddenly begin to turn on and operate. He goes downstairs and finds the front door open and the kitchen trashed, a doggie door swinging as if something just passed through it. The commotion awakes the boy’s mother, Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), who comes to look for him and sees him running away from the house, laughing happily.

This almost magical scene is then immediately contrasted with a scene of domestic routine, helping to establish the confrontation between the marvelous and the ordinary that will provide much of the film’s special energy. In this scene, 8-year-old Brad Neary (Shawn Bishop) asks his father Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) for help with his math (he has trouble with fractions), but Roy would rather play with his toy trains. Neary’s wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr) reminds him of a promise to take everyone to a movie that weekend. He excitedly suggests that they see Pinocchio (1940), announcing the theme of Dinsey-like magic and wonder that will be crucial to the film. Brad, however, is uninterested in magic: he objects to having to see a boring G-rated film. The younger son, Toby (Justin Dreyfuss, nephew of Richard) makes banging noises in the background as he destroys a doll, reinforcing his brother’s lack of interest in the puppet Pinocchio. Eventually, both boys conclude that they would rather play Goofy Golf than see the movie. Meanwhile, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) plays on the TV in the background, but is largely ignored. Religion will be a crucial theme in Close Encounters, but the DeMille film, especially when reduced to television form, also announces a culture for which religion has become just another commodity, a form of popular entertainment rather than true spirituality.Then a call comes in for Neary, a lineman for the electric company, to come in to work to help fight a power outage that is sweeping across the area.

Back to Jillian Guiler, now looking for Barry in the woods with a flashlight. Neary, meanwhile, drives through the dark countryside, then suddenly stops. “Help, I’m lost!” he cries (though with good humor) to no one in particular, and he is clearly lost in more ways than one. Not only is he unable to find his destination of the moment, but he has also lost sight of any real destination or meaning in his life. He stops and looks at his maps. Bright lights appear behind him, again possibly a UFO, but it is simply a car whose passenger excoriates Neary for parking in the middle of the road. Then more bright lights appear behind Neary, which we assume to be another car; this time, however, the lights slowly rise into the sky, announcing that this time it finally really is a UFO. A row of mailboxes beside the road starts to shake violently back and forth, the doors flapping open. A bright light from the sky envelopes Neary’s truck, flashing as he looks upward. The crossing alarm goes off and the items inside his truck start to fly around, the radio going haywire. Then it all stops. Looking upward through his windshield, Neary sees a strange craft gliding overhead. It beams another light down on the road ahead. Then Neary’s truck starts by itself and his radio comes on, filled with frantic reports of strange happenings. As he drives forward the shadow of the craft moves across the landscape. The Guiler and Neary plot strands then converge as Neary almost runs over Barry, whose mother manages to knock him out of the way in the knick of time.

The Guilers and Neary then join a small gathering of people who watch by the roadside as a series of three small craft (followed by a ball of red light) fly by, low, following the road. Police cars come along in pursuit. “This is nuts,” says Neary, totally unable to comprehend what he is seeing. He then gets back in his truck and drives off after the craft and the police cars. Then we cut to a sleeping tollbooth attendant at the Ohio State Line who is awakened as the craft fly though with the police (and Neary) in pursuit. The craft disburse and disappear followed by a brief wave of lightning.

Neary excitedly rushes home to tell Ronnie what happened. A “sensible” woman (unreceptive to magic), she is skeptical of Neary’s report—and will remain so throughout the film. He drags her out of bed to take her back to see what is going on. He rouses the kids as well, and they all go out and get in the truck. Ronnie notices that Roy is sunburned on one side of his face, which we as viewers will link to the old man in Mexico. At Roy’s insistence, the Nearies drive back to the spot where Roy saw the small craft flying by, but they see nothing out of the ordinary, though lightning still continues in the night sky. Ronnie, trying to be patient, suggests a “snuggle,” then starts to kiss Roy as if to offer consolation, though there is a certain condescension in her affection, even as there is a hint that she is trying to use sex to lure Roy back into the fold, encouraging him to drop his quest for the marvelous and return to the world of the mundane.

After this scene of wedded domesticity, we cut (in a scene added especially for the 1980 Special Edition of the film) to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, where a man leads a camel up a sand dune. Suddenly three station wagons with UN markings come bursting over the dune followed by two helicopters. Excited desert-dwellers lead them to a site where an ocean-going ship has materialized in the desert. Echoing the lost planes found in Mexico, the ship is the Cotopaxi, a long-lost seagoing cargo vessel, obviously out of place in the middle of the desert.

Back in the Neary home, Ronnie cuts out a newspaper article describing a recent wave of UFO sightings, apparently to keep it from Roy, who seems to have become obsessed with such phenomena. Meanwhile, Roy sprays shaving cream onto his hand and suddenly becomes fascinated by the shape of it, though for reasons he himself cannot understand. Ronnie, continuing to be the voice of reason and normality, tries to convince the kids that there are no UFOs and that nothing strange is going on. But Roy is convinced that he saw something inexplicable and he insists on pursuing an explanation. Then a call comes in: Roy (apparently neglecting his work duties because of his UFO obsession) has been fired.

The next scene continues the pattern of cuts between an almost stifling domesticity and a potentially inspiring aura of mystery. The UN team now arrives in Dharmsala, Northern India, where a gathering of locals sits and chants a now-famous series of five tones they recently heard coming from the sky. Their seeming spiritual tranquility contrasts sharply with the sight of UN investigators walking among them carrying high-tech microphones to record the chanting. Asked where the tones came from, the Indians, as one, point toward the sky. Lacombe and his team then bring the recording back to play for a gathering in the U.S. Lacombe, though still struggling to communicate with an audience of non-French speakers, demonstrates how the sign language developed by Zoltán Kodály[1] can be used to represent the tone sequence visually, thus indicating that ingenuity can overcome obstacles to communication.  However, the auditorium in which Lacombe makes his presentation is nearly empty, signifying the lack of interest in such phenomena in the West.

By this time, Lacombe has clearly been established as a crucial symbolic figure, standing in for the scientific quest to understand the film’s strange phenomena in a rational way, while Neary and Jillian Guiler represent a more emotional, even spiritual quest. At this point, the domestic and the mysterious start to converge as we cut from Lacombe’s scientific briefing to Neary as he joins a crowd that night, on the lookout for UFOs. Jillian sees and greets him: she has the same sunburn, though hers is on both sides. Neary notices that Barry, playing in the dirt, is sculpting the same shape he saw in his shaving cream. Neary admits that he seems to keep seeing the shape everywhere. He feels he knows what it represents, but can’t quite place it. Suddenly, they see two lights approaching in the sky. They think it is UFOs, but once again there is a mundane explanation: it turns out to be helicopters. By now the point has been made: most UFO sightings have a perfectly ordinary explanation; some, however, might not.

An astronomical station has been sending out signals made of the tone sequence from India. In return, they receive a series of signals containing numbers, which they eventually understand as a latitude and longitude. They fetch (somewhat comically) a giant globe and locate the coordinates as a point in Wyoming, right at the base of the Devils Tower National Monument, a mysterious-looking formation that will play a crucial role in the rest of the film. The government quickly mobilizes to respond to this information, concluding that the coordinates indicate the site where the aliens hope to meet officially with humans for the first time.

Back in the Guiler home, Jillian, something of an artist, sketches in charcoal the same shape that has been fascinating Neary, while her son plays the alien tones on his xylophone. Clouds begin to boil overhead and light appears through them. “Toys!” shouts Barry, delightedly, looking to the skies. Jillian is less certain. She locks the windows and barricades the doors. An orangish light comes through the keyhole. Barry opens the door to find that the outside is infused with orange light. Jillian pulls him in and relocks the door. Bedlam breaks loose in the house, and bright light pours through every opening. Barry is thrilled as household appliances begin to operate on their own, but his mother is frantic. She picks up the phone, but can hear nothing on it but the five-tone sequence. The refrigerator and stove shake and rattle. Barry heads out through the doggie door in the kitchen, into the orange light, his mother unable to stop him. The commotion suddenly halts. Jillian rushes outside, but Barry is nowhere to be found.

After an unspecified gap of time, news reporters interview Jillian about Barry’s disappearance, asking about her report to the police, but she doesn’t want to talk to them. Then we move on to a government news conference, where various officials try to convince reporters and civilians that there is no real evidence of UFOs. Meanwhile, the military mobilizes to secure the site in Wyoming. The UN team heads there as well, while officials concoct a story to justify evacuating the area, announcing that they are sealing off the area because a train carrying several carloads of deadly nerve gas has derailed nearby.

Neary keeps thinking of the mysterious shape, a sort of stubby mountain, drawing it on his newspaper. At dinner, he sculpts the shape from his mashed potatoes, then begins to cry, seeming more and more unbalanced—especially to his relatively unimaginative wife and children. Ronnie, unable to believe in the genuinely marvelous, is increasingly convinced that her husband is going insane. Roy makes a clay model of the shape, becoming agitated by his inability to understand what it means, rushing out into the night to sit in a swing (again signifying his childlike side). Ronnie awakes in the middle of the night and finds him sitting in the tub, fully clad, with the shower on. She urges him to go to family therapy. The children come in and become violently upset at the sight of their father in such a state. Ronnie screams at them to go away. Roy begs Ronnie for help, but she becomes angry and screams at him: “You’re wrecking us! You’re wrecking us!”

In the next scene, Roy watches a cartoon (1953’s Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century), in which Daffy Duck battles an alien, Marvin the Martian, further connecting Close Encounters to its predecessors in American pop culture. He then suddenly concludes that his recent fascination is mere childish silliness, like the cartoon. He starts to rip up his clippings of UFO reports and his other UFO materials (we see that he has a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek hanging from the ceiling). After we see a Pinocchio music box that, tellingly, plays “When You Wish Upon a Star” (the theme song from the Disney movie), he even begins to tear apart the clay sculpture, but suddenly realizes that, with the top taken off, leaving it flat, he has captured the right shape at last. He awakens the family that morning as they hear him ripping up the shrubbery around the house. Seeming completely insane at last, he starts tossing the plants through the kitchen window. He tosses dirt and bricks through the window as well. Neighbors look on at his bizarre antics as he wrestles a garbage can away from the garbage man, dumps half the garbage out in the street, then dumps the rest, and the can, through the kitchen window. He rips up the wire fence from around his neighbor’s duck pond and tosses that into his kitchen as well, while more and more neighbors gather to witness the spectacle. Ronnie, having had enough, rushes the three kids into the car, orders them to lock the doors, then drives away, leaving Roy behind, even after he leaps on the hood of the vehicle to try to stop her.

Neary himself climbs through the kitchen window (apparently too inspired to take time to walk around to the door), then uses the materials to build a large sculpture of the mysterious shape in his living room. As he works, the television is on, as it usually is in the domestic scenes of the film. Then a TV news report about the supposed nerve gas spill at Wakashi Needles Junction, Wyoming, comes on as Roy talks to Ronnie on the phone, hoping to get his family to come home. Devils Tower  appears on the TV behind him. Ronnie hangs up, and Roy finally notices the image on the screen, immediately realizing that this is the shape that has so occupied his mind. He rushes to his station wagon (emblem of domesticity) and heads for Wyoming, now identified as the locus of the mysterious.

When Neary arrives in the vicinity of Devils Tower, he finds that the roads leading into the area have been blocked, both lanes filled with outgoing traffic due to the evacuation. He makes his way to the crowded train station, where a mob scrambles to get aboard outbound trains, fleeing what they believe is deadly nerve gas. At the station, he meets Jillian, who has also been drawn to the area, and greets her with a hug. They get in his car and drive through a fence and across the countryside, symbolically crashing through barriers and announcing that they have now broken free of the bonds of domesticity in their quest for something that transcends the mind-numbing routine of their daily lives. Eventually, they spot Devils Tower itself, which seems almost to rise up out of the ground as they crest a hill, bringing it into view.

They decide to go back for more gas before proceeding on to Devils Tower, on the way seeing what appear to be dead lifestock by the roadside, though the birds Jillian carries in a cage are fine. Nevertheless, they put on gas masks, though Neary assures Jillian that the dead animals are part of a “put-up.” Then they drive up on a group of armed men in chemical suits and are quickly taken into custody. Neary and Lacombe finally come together as the scientist questions Neary via his interpreter, Laughlin. Lacombe asks Neary whether he has various medical conditions and if he has recently had a “close encounter.” Neary’s only response is to ask, “Who are you people?” They show him pictures of a number of people, including Jillian. All but she are strangers to him. He admits that he and Jillian felt compelled to come to the area to seek “an answer,” though he can explain no further.

Neary is taken out and put in a helicopter with a number of others (including Jillian) wearing gas masks. There are twelve of these “pilgrims,” who seem to have been called to the scene from all over the country, feeling compelled to do so by the same vision of Devils Tower. Twelve is an auspiciously religious number (as in the twelve Apostles of Christ), though Lacombe expresses confidence that there must have been hundreds of others who simply didn’t make it this far. Neary takes off his mask and discovers that the air is fine. Jillian and another man, Larry Butler (Josef Sommer), follow suit, bolting from the helicopter as it waits to take off . They run off toward Devils Tower, with Lacombe watching, thoughtful, out a window. Meanwhile, we learn that the “dead” livestock have merely been knocked out with “EZ-4,” a sleeping drug used for riot control, and that the army is considering dusting the whole area with it, people and all, if they can’t be cleared out.

The three escapees climb toward Devils Tower as helicopters sweep overhead. Armed soldiers comb the area as well, but they soon decide they won’t be able to clear the area in time. They call in the EZ-4, as the three pilgrims reach the base of Devils Tower. A helicopter overhead begins to drop the EZ-4; birds fall from the trees, signaling the effect of the drug. Larry gets knocked out by the drug, but Roy and Jillian evade it and continue their climb. Roy barely makes it up a slippery incline. They reach a point where they see a huge lighted arena at the foot of Devils Tower and hear a voice over a loud speaker directing everyone to take their positions and ordering the lights in the arena to be dimmed. The speaker directs everyone to watch the skies. Swirling lights approach the “arena”; alien ships hover over it. The humans repeatedly play the five-tone sequence over a speaker, but get no response from the ships. Suddenly, the ships play the tone sequence in response, then fly away.

Roiling clouds approach with dancing lights inside. Several small ships swoop over the arena, apparently scouting it out in advance. One passes slowly just over the heads of the personnel on the ground, then moves away. Neary decides to go down to the arena, though Jillian elects to stay behind. They kiss, but as spiritual comrades rather than lovers. As Neary climbs down to the arena, the huge alien mother ship appears over Devils Tower, bearing numerous blue and orange lights. It slowly moves down to the arena and comes to a stop just above the ground. The humans waiting on the ground play the tones; the craft answers with a different sequence of tuba-like blasts, one of which is so powerful it blows out the glass in a tower. The two sides exchange several sequences of musical tones, as if the aliens are trying to teach the humans “a basic tonal vocabulary.”

Jillian finally climbs down to the arena and joins Roy. Bright lights come on beneath the craft; suddenly human figures begin to come down a landing ramp that is lowered from the craft and emerge from bright light. Some are the 1940s crewmen from the naval flight exercise (Flight 19) from the film’s opening, though they don’t seem to have aged a day and they unaccountably look like men from the 1970s in terms of hairstyle and dress. Other humans, civilians, emerge, including Barry, who happily rushes to his waiting mother. Lacombe sees Neary and asks him what he wants. “I just want to know that it’s really happening,” replies Neary. Lacombe tells Neary that he envies him, apparently concluding that Neary has received a special call to come to the scene that the rational Lacombe has not. Suddenly, an alien emerges from the light, with long spindly arms and legs and making gestures of peace. Then a group of small, childlike aliens emerges, very different from the first alien, indicating that the alien society includes different species—unless some of the aliens we see emerging from the ship are abductees from other planets, much like the humans who had been abducted. The humans watch expectantly as the aliens mill about. Jillian, her eyes tearing with joy, snaps photographs of the amazing event.

Cut to a chapel service among a group of individuals who seem to have either volunteered or been chosen to be sent off aboard the alien craft, including Neary, presumably the only one of the group to have been called by the aliens themselves (because the authorities apparently did not allow the other pilgrims onto the site). These “ambassadors” (many of them appear to be almost identical-looking military men) are then led out to the arena wearing red jump suits. In what appears to be a continuity error, there at first seem to be thirteen of the red-suited figures, though later there appear to be only twelve, two of whom are women and one of whom is an African American man. Several of the small aliens take Neary by the hand and lead him (his arms outstretched, Christlike) into the light beneath the mother ship as a strain from “When You Wish Upon a Star,” oddly conflating Christian imagery with Disney, drifts whimsically into the background music. Neary looks back toward Jillian with a look of peace and contentment, then steps up the ramp into the craft. The other ambassadors are never shown boarding the craft, and it is not in fact clear that they do so. An alien of still another species (looking a bit like the “greys” associated with the supposed crash of an alien craft near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, but also a little like a relative of the later E.T.) emerges from the light and exchanges the five-tone sequence with Lacombe, using the Kodály sign language; the alien then goes back into the ship. Barry innocently calls “Bye” as the craft lifts off into the skies.

While Close Encounters of the Third Kind leaves many questions unanswered, its message is in most ways relatively straightforward and simple. Indeed, any uncertainties that remain are simply part of the central message, which is not merely that we need not fear invasions by aliens, but that we should in general be open to new things, even if they go beyond what can be encompassed or understood by our previous experience. To an extent, one can interpret this message as a religious one. Thus, film critic J. P. Telotte, in his book Science Fiction Film (Cambridge University Press, 2001) describes the film as a “story of belief, acceptance, and quasi-religious affirmation” (144).

Telotte goes on to outline the ways in which the film, with its vision of benevolent, childlike aliens who nevertheless possess powers far beyond our own, seeks to provide a reassuring vision of order in the universe amid the seeming chaos of our own postmodern lives. Any number of critics have been even more forceful about seeing a strong religious message in the film, which, while it conveys the point of view of no particular religion, does seem to urge the value of belief in something larger than ourselves and beyond our personal experience. Other critics have been less generous, however. Andrew Gordon, in a 1980 article in the journal Literature/Film Quarterly (Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 156–64), provides one of the more negative readings of the film when he charges that Spielberg presents a “purified, Disneyized version of religion” that cashes in on a number of popular (and highly commercial) quasi-mystical fads of the late 1970s (156–57). Meanwhile, Tony Williams, in a 1983 article in the film journal Wide Angle (Vol. 4, No. 5, pp. 23–29) finds an ominous political message in the film’s endorsement of belief, which he sees as an expression of an immature yearning for the security of control by authoritarian power.

Of course, some of the “religious” content of the film may be supplied as much by the film’s audience as by the film itself, so whatever yearnings are expressed by this content could be those of the viewers rather than the filmmakers. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate (and the seeming collapse of the idealistic political movements of the 1960s and early 1970s), American audiences, in particular, were ready for the marvelous and for a message of hope, open to suggestions that all could be made well by the intervention of higher powers. It is certainly the case that Close Encounters includes absolutely no overt expressions of religious belief, and the only “higher” power actually shown in the film is that represented by the aliens themselves. However, these aliens do not seem to be supernatural; they are simply extremely advanced in a technological sense. Indeed, Spielberg seems to have gone out of his way to make this point, especially in his representation of the mother ship, the design of which (by various accounts based either on an oil refinery or a power-generating station) includes a vast amount of what appears to be complex machinery[2]. One perhaps thinks here of the famous quip by British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but it is certainly the case that the aliens seem to rely on technology, rather than magic, to accomplish their goals.

The alien mother ship descends on Devils Tower.
The impressive display of lights from the alien mother ship.

Granted, the aliens themselves, with their air of playful childlike innocence, hardly seem capable of developing and building the kind of high-tech machinery embodied in the mother ship—though the interior shot in the 1980 Special Edition does seem to show many of them busily working, rather than playing. Then again, perhaps the humans of the film see only what the aliens want them to see. Perhaps the childlike innocence is either a calculated gesture of friendship or (more ominously) an intentional ruse designed to secure the trust of the humans, who can then more easily be manipulated.

The film does seem to go out of its way to make the behavior of the aliens appear inscrutable, and many of their strategies do not seem to make sense from a human perspective. Among other things, the aliens seem remarkably oblivious to the pain and suffering they might have caused to human beings in their decades-long program of abductions of humans. Nor do they seem concerned about the lives and families (like the Nearies) that might be wrecked by the oddly mysterious nature of their arrival. One would think, after all, that a culture advanced enough to have built a starship (and that has had decades to study abducted human beings) would have developed a more unambiguous means of communication—unless, of course (echoing the linguistic imperialism that typically informed the attitudes of Western colonial powers on earth), they regard human beings as so inferior that it is not worth stooping to their level or using their languages.

In any case, if there is a supernatural power at work in the events of the film, that power would appear to be not the aliens themselves but a godlike agency that oversees the alien arrival on earth and attempts to mediate the encounter between the two sides. That interpretation might explain the fact that the humans on earth seem to be receiving two entirely different sorts of messages from extrahuman forces. On the one hand, there are innocents and artists (like Roy Neary and Jillian Guiler) who seem to receive intuitive, spiritual calls announcing the alien arrival. On the other hand, the aliens also send mathematical codes to scientists on earth explaining exactly where they would like to meet. At times, however, these two modes of communication collapse into one. For example, the five-tone sequence that is so central to the film is both mathematical and musical. And, while we are clearly meant to understand that the crowd of Indian mystics shown early in the film is especially receptive to the sequence because of their greater spirituality (relative to Americans, with their highly materialistic culture), it is also the case that actual communication with the aliens seems to be established not by spiritual communion but by the use of a high-tech computer system that is programmed to interpret the alien tonal codes and respond in kind.

Meanwhile, the film’s use of Indian mysticism as an emblem of spirituality is itself an Orientalist cliché of Western popular culture, echoing an image popularized in such events as the famous visit of the Beatles to India in 1968 to confer with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. If this image suggests the kind of commodified pop spirituality criticized by Gordon, it is also problematic in that the film, especially in its portrayal of Roy Neary and Barry Guiler, clearly seeks to associate spiritual openness with childlike innocence. As a result, the suggestion of greater Indian spirituality is also a suggestion of Indian childishness, which quite directly echoes any number of Western racist and colonialist stereotypes about the simplicity of the nonWestern mind. And, given the history of colonial domination and exploitation of India by Great Britain, this repetition of colonialist stereotypes in the film seems extremely insensitive, if not downright racist.

Close Encounters is a film that repeats a number of such offensive stereotypes, presumably inadvertently. In addition to its problematic treatment of nonWestern cultures, the film’s depiction of women is troubling as well. Ronnie Neary, depicted as the prototypical ball-and-chain who seeks to domesticate her man and curb his desire to dream (then abandons him when he dreams nevertheless), is the obvious case here. The film clearly sides with Roy against Ronnie, and nothing is made of the fact that the former abandons his familial responsibilities to go off in search of a weird-seeming pipe dream. Of course, the film is also careful to avoid any such question about Jillian Guiler, the “good” woman who, in clichéd contrast with Ronnie, understands Neary’s need to follow the call he has heard. But Jillian has no husband to abandon, and she goes to Devils Tower to retrieve her son, rather than to leave him behind. Finally, that the male pilgrim Roy is given the crucial role of ambassador to an alien civilization, while the female Jillian simply comes to pick up her child (then happily, like a good soccer mom, snaps photographs) privileges the male role in ways that are probably as objectionable as the depiction of Indians as simple-minded mystics.

Granted, one might take the seeming benevolence of the highly advanced aliens as a rebuke to the Western legacy of self-serving colonial exploitation of the rest of the world. But any attempt to read Close Encounters as a critique, rather than a repetition, of Western colonialist ideology runs afoul of the film’s complete failure to challenge the stereotypes it repeats. In addition, the film seems completely uninterested in (and never mentions) the fact that Devils Tower is a powerful spiritual symbol for several Native American cultures, the site having apparently been selected by the filmmakers purely for its visual effect rather than its spiritual resonances, which the film never even mentions. Then again, the very fact that the site is a national monument is itself problematic and suggests the appropriation of a sacred Native American site for use essentially as a tourist attraction. From this point of view it is significant that the television feature report that Near sees on Devils Tower describes it as “the first national monument erected in this country by Theodore Roosevelt in 1915” as if the impressive natural geological phenomenon, which plays an important role in Plains Indian myth and folklore, was somehow constructed by the federal government. To make matters worse, the report even includes the wrong date: Roosevelt designated the site as a national monument in 1906, not 1915.

Then again, to mention the importance of Devils Tower to Native Americans would call attention to the virtual destruction of Native American cultures by the intrusion of technologically superior Western powers. In so doing, the film might have undermined its own message that we should welcome the benevolent alien invaders. After all, the U.S. Army forces that originally decimated the Native American tribes living in the region of Devils Tower carried with them a narrative of national benevolence that did not prevent near genocide. If the U.S., standard bearer of liberty and justice, could essentially eradicate the more technologically backward (but perhaps more spiritually advanced) plains Indians, then what is to prevent the advanced aliens from doing the same to the U.S., especially given that American culture is depicted throughout the film as spiritually impoverished and almost irredeemably corrupt?

As Neary works on the large (and impressive) sculpture of Devils Tower in this living room, it is not clear whether he has discovered his latent gifts as a sculptor or whether those gifts have been bestowed upon him by forces from beyond our world. Meanwhile, the soap opera Days of Our Lives plays on the television, perhaps because soap operas are often considered an embodiment of the debased and commodified nature of American popular culture. Still, this program’s emblem of sand passing through an hourglass could be taken to symbolize the way in which Neary and his fellow suburbanites have merely been marking time, drifting through their empty lives. As if to emphasize this point, Neary then looks out the window at his neighbors as they go about their various humdrum tasks, realizing as he does how distant he feels from them now that he has a calling from beyond the ordinary. The television then switches to a Budweiser beer commercial, again emphasizing the banality of suburban life, while at the same time suggesting the vapid commercialism of most television programming, which itself clearly functions in the film as a marker of the stultifying routine of everyday American life. One could, of course, find religious (especially Christian) significance in the Budweiser commercial that Neary hears, especially in the words of its jingle: “The king is coming: let’s hear the call.” But if those words could be taken to associate the alien arrival with the second coming of Christ, they surely do so in the most debased of ways. What they really suggest is the appropriation of even the most sacred of symbols by American corporate capitalism for use in even the most profane of missions, such as selling beer.

The news bulletin that follows the commercial is in many ways even more powerful than the soap opera or the beer commercial as a critique of the workings of American television. Not only does the feature report on Devils Tower show an obliviousness to Native American spiritual concerns (or, for that matter, simple facts), but the news report of a train derailment is fake news; it does nothing more than convey a lie concocted by the government, indicating the complicity of the media in official attempts to mislead the public. Meanwhile, the news reporter who announces the apparent calamity of a massive nerve gas spill in the cattle lands of Wyoming (possibly contaminating the beef supply) ends his account by making the event into a joke: “This means order your steak well done, Walter.” It is not clear whom he is addressing, by the way, since the anchor man who introduces him is ABC’s Howard K. Smith, not CBS’s Walter Cronkite; the situation is even further confused later when Neary, during his interrogation by Lacombe, admits that he has come to the area to investigate a “Walter Cronkite story.”

Close Encounters is, in fact, a confused film in a number of ways. It is especially clear and quite powerful in its condemnation of American capitalist society as driven by materialist demands that leave the general population spiritually bereft. It is less convincing, however, when it attempts to offer alternatives to everyday American life, the option of simply waiting for alien (or divine) forces to save us seeming less than practical. Ultimately, of course, the real magic promoted by the film as an antidote to American capitalism comes not from gods or aliens, but from Hollywood. In Close Encounters, film itself is marvelous, especially as opposed to television, its main cultural competitor. Television in the film is depicted as so insipid that even a religious epic like The Ten Commandments loses much of its magic when it is reduced to the small screen, as we can see from the scene in which Roy, desperate for magic, pleads with Ronnie to let the kids watch a few-minute snippet of the nearly four-hour film, thus depriving the film of its overall context and impact, reducing it instead to a bite-sized television portion.

This reduction of The Ten Commandments aside, Close Encounters can be read as offering film as a potentially magical alternative to the commercial banalities of television, whether in classic Disney films like Pinocchio, with their evocation of childhood magic, or in magical films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Close Encounters visually and lovingly echoes at several points. It was precisely with an eye toward such echoes that Spielberg, a fascinated admirer of the Kubrick film, sought out Trumbull (who played a key role in designing the special effects for 2001)to be his special photographic effects supervisor. Indeed, Spielberg reportedly watched and rewatched 2001 obsessively during the filming of Close Encounters, which can be seen as a sort of homage to Kubrick—one that would be repeated in different form when Spielberg assumed the directorship of the 2001 film Artificial Intelligence: A.I., which Kubrick had planned to direct before his death in 1999 (and which also, for that matter, draws on Pinocchio in significant ways).

Of course, the central emblem of movie magic in Close Encounters is Close Encounters itself, which asks viewers to regard the film they are watching as precisely the kind of extraordinary phenomenon that the film so thoroughly endorses. For example, audiences are perfectly well aware that the magnificent alien mother ship was actually constructed not by childlike aliens but by Spielberg and Trumbull. (If this were not clear enough, the filmmakers left several “signatures” on the mother ship, which, among its busy high-tech accoutrements, includes glued-on models of the robot R2-D2 and Darth Vader’s spaceship from Star Wars, as well as a model of a Volkswagen Beetle.) Of course the magic of Close Encounters resides as much in its dare-to-dream theme as in its special effects, though even this aspect of the film is a bit contradictory. By presenting film as a sort of escape from the suffocating routine of daily life under capitalism, Close Encounters delivers a ringing endorsement of the notion of Hollywood as America’s Dream Factory, even as the overt critique of capitalism in the film makes the “factory” portion of this image problematic. Further, the film’s preference for the imagination over commerce ignores the fact that it was a big-budget production that reaped huge profits for its corporate sponsors. Nevertheless, Close Encounters remains a powerful and special film, one that reminds us that, however routine life might have become in the modern workaday world, glimmers of hope for a magical future still remain.

Related Films

            In addition to its numerous echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the central thematic role played by Pinocchio, Close Encounters contains direct or indirect references to a number of other films, such as Metropolis (1927) and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Close Encounters has also exerted a strong influence on subsequent films. Visually, itwas a landmark film that changed forever the way the movies would represent aliens and UFOs, influencing the look of any number of subsequent SF films, in addition to television’s The X-Files. In addition, the emphasis on communication with the aliens can be seen in such subsequent films as Arrival (2016). But the film that is most directly and obviously related to Close Encounters is Spielberg’s later E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982), which also conveys the notion of benevolent alien visitors. James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) also features benevolent (though apparently more interventionist) aliens, while its visual effects sometimes recall Close Encounters as well. On the other hand, the hugely successful Independence Day (1996) is a sort of anti–Close Encounters that avowedly returns to the 1950s days of hostile alien invaders, a trend that was continued to be a popular one.


[1] Kodály (1882–1967) was a Hungarian composer, philosopher, linguist, and musicologist whose work inspired the development of a system of musical notation known as the “Kodály Method.”

[2] At the same time, the ship is decorated with an array of lights that makes it look both beautiful and majestic, giving it an almost religious aura.