40 years after its release, Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains one of Steven Spielberg’s most personal and acclaimed films. Close Encounters may have been overshadowed by two other big sci-fi releases of its day, — 1977’s Star Wars and 1979’s Alien — but it should be remembered for using its story and visual effects to renew a sense of awe and wonder on Earth.
Transcript provided by Youtube:
Forty years after its release, Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains one
of Steven Spielberg’s most personal films. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called
the film “the best expression of Spielberg’s benign dreamy-eyed vision.” And
Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury declared it his favorite science fiction
movie and the most important film of our time. Close Encounters endures as a
classic thanks to three things we’re going to explore here: One, it dramatizes
the alienation of being inspired by a vision that others can’t see. Two, it
creates an optimistic picture of the potential for human connection. And three,
it explores religion in a modern context.
The entire film can also be read as wrestling with the struggle of what it
costs to be an artist. On one level the movie is asking whether pursuing an
artistic career can be reconciled with a stable family life.
[I can’t describe it. What I’m feeling.And what I’m thinking.]
Close encounters was Spielberg’s brainchild — he both wrote and directed
the film, something he’s only done two other times in his career with The
Sugarland Express, and later AI. And in Close Encounters analogies to the
artist’s dilemma we observe Spielberg grappling with personal questions about
his own life. Close Encounters’ depiction of suburban family life appears
suffocating. Spielberg often composes scenes in the Neary house with all the
kids in the frame at once. One of the kids will be making some kind of
annoying background noise.
Notice how Roy’s son is constantly playing the piano which elevates the
tension of the scene and makes this life seem unbearable. Close Encounters could
be read as Spielberg’s Eraserhead. Like David Lynch in that film, the
director is struggling with anxieties about becoming a father.
Spielberg warns of the sacrifices and anxieties that come with following an
artistic vision through the fracturing of the Neary family.
[Well I guess you’ve noticed that something is a little strange with Dad.]
In 1977 Spielberg himself was still unmarried and without kids but he
includes the family drama to express his deepest fears.
[Ronnie, I’m really scared.]
devotion to filmmaking could ultimately make it impossible for him to live a
healthy family life. This fear proved prescient to a degree
as he and his partner at the time Amy Irving broke up in 1979, and after later
getting married, they divorced in 1989 both times because of career stresses.
One of the film’s most prominent themes is obsession. Roy becomes obsessed with
UFOs and spends his time creating models of Devil’s Tower.
[I’ve been seeing this shape.]
Filmmakers are likewise inspired, see visions in their heads, and work to
exhaustion trying to make this vision a reality that we can see. A number of
directors have addressed this idea of obsession in their films. Probably
because given the demands of making a film they also tend to be obsessive
people. David Laughlin even asked Roy, “are you an artist or painter.” Close Encounters also
reflects a lighter side of the artist’s personality – a childlike playful whimsy.
Spielberg’s nostalgic desire for
innocence is reflected in Roy who owns and plays with a child’s train set and
argues with his kids about seeing the movie Pinocchio.
The UFOs make him feel like a child again as he begins playing with food and
constructing a mountain of mud. For Roy mundane suburban family life can’t
compare to the wonder that comes from learning about what’s out there.
[All I want to do is…is… know what’s going on.]
So with Roy’s characters, Spielberg seems
to be expressing both his own fear of domestic city and his desire to stay
young at heart.
Like the recent film, Arrival, Close Encounters uses the advent
of aliens to address humankind’s struggle to communicate with each other.
The opening shot isn’t a special-effects shot like it is in Star Wars, but rather
a shot of people exiting a car and talking — only they quickly run into a
language barrier. The Americans can’t communicate with the
And soon a group of Frenchmen join the conversation.
Spielberg later features people speaking Mongolian and Hindi. The director
emphasizes these divides at first, in order to undo them as the film
progresses. The arrival of the aliens unites people showing that barriers like
language, creed and skin color are unnecessary. Notice that in the end, the
humans communicate with the aliens with music and sign language, two of the most
universal ways of communicating in our world. Spielberg made this film in
counterpoint to many films of the 70s that focused on the nihilism and
corruption of the era. But Close Encounters ultimately leaves us with a
hopeful outlook for the future, affirmed by Roy’s continued assertion that “this means something.”
The film is full of references to
Christianity. Continuing on the theme of communication, we see a deconstruction of
the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, which explains why the world
developed different languages. In that story people originally all spoke one
language and together they attempted to build a tower to the heavens.
Disliking their arrogance, God undermined their progress by creating different
languages, confusing and scattering the people.
Spielberg’s focus on different languages in the film refers to the confusion that
God created after Babel. But Close Encounters ultimately tells an opposite
story — of a confused people who learn to come together.
Spielberg’s story ends with everyone uniting at Devils Tower, a modern-day
Tower of Babel where everyone speaks one language again — music. The characters in
Close Encounters feel a deep desire for transcendence, reflecting our need to
make sense of the mysterious ominous world we live in.
Roy is a prophet, not unlike Moses in the book of Exodus. Spielberg even hints
at this connection when Roy and his kids are watching the Ten Commandments
on TV. Roy’s first encounter with UFOs by the train tracks reminds us of stories
of religious conversion, especially Paul the Apostle’s conversion on the road to
Damascus. According to Acts, Paul was originally a persecutor of Christians
but he suddenly converted to Christianity after being blinded by
light and seeing Jesus in the desert. Roy is also awestruck by the UFO and
briefly blinded by the light of the spaceship. After this moment, like Paul,
Roy becomes obsessed with his vision.
[Listen, Ronnie, Ronnie, I never would have believed it.
There was this…in the cab, there was this whole…it went… there was a red woosh..]
Later in the film as Roy leaves with the aliens,
Spielberg uses imagery that evokes Christ on the cross. Here Roy sacrifices
himself, and leaves behind his friends and family for a faith within him that
he doesn’t entirely understand and that feels inevitable. For a Spielberg film
Close Encounters’ ending is unusually ambiguous — it doesn’t answer
all of our questions. After all, we don’t know what will happen to Roy, and we
never truly learn what the aliens were doing on Earth. The ending encourages us
not to fear the unknown, but instead to trust that there could be beauty in what
we don’t understand. In recent years Close Encounters may
have been overshadowed by two other big sci-fi releases of its day — 1977’s Star
Wars, and 1979’s Alien. But Close Encounters should be remembered for
using its story and visual effects to renew a sense of awe and wonder on Earth.
Close Encounters yearns for, and finds transcendence, while also showing us the
cost of that search for meaning.
This post was previously published on Youtube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video