Transcendent Science Fiction: Pondering Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind stands as a unique masterpiece among the many achievements of Steven Spielberg.  Close Encounters is actually one of the few films that Spielberg wrote himself.  His screenplay is an interesting mix of UFO lore, classic science fiction, conspiracy theories, realistic family drama, and spiritual allusions.  The narrative structure, with its initial flood of indications, its aggressive expansion of scope before its eventual narrowing, and its constant suspense and rising action, echoes that of Spielberg’s previous blockbuster Jaws—while anticipating Jurassic Park—in many ways.  However, Close Encounters also contains significant narrative anomalies for a Spielberg film, such as the non-violent, mostly action-less, and decidedly contemplative climax.  The resulting film is an exciting science fiction thriller as well as a remarkable parable about transcendence. The central character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is Roy Neary (played with gusto by Richard Dreyfus, who was never better than in Spielberg’s early blockbusters).  Roy experiences something extraordinary while driving on a rural highway one night, and he is radically changed by the event.  Possessed by new inner desires he barely understands, Roy ultimately abandons his family to follow his vision, which leads him to Devils Tower in Wyoming where he experiences something even more extraordinary.  Whether we interpret the story as a spiritual awakening in the vein of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, or as an allegory about the artist’s insatiable need to self-express and understand, Close Encounters is about transcending the ordinary and mundane in order to achieve a greater understanding and to pursue a higher calling.

In the early films of Spielberg the domestic scenes feel so real, and in Close Encounters the frustration present in the family is palpable.  Roy’s ultimate abandonment of his family is still shocking to see, though, especially in light of Spielberg’s later works that so often communicate the importance of family.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is also unique in the genre of science fiction, as the film contains a distinctly exciting even jubilatory tone.  The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Blade Runner: so many great science fiction films are full of dread, whether they convey fear of technology, fear of aliens/others, or fear of ourselves and of the future we are creating.  Spielberg does craft some great scenes of suspense in the first half of the film.  The visceral scene in which the little boy is abducted is particularly frightening.  Scenes that depict the countryside beneath the starry night sky also evoke, for me, the fearful wonder of certain childhood nights on the prairie, looking at the stars, talking about UFOs, ghosts, God.  The success of such scenes lies in how Spielberg captures the dual aspects of the sublime: both fear and wonder.  The most wondrous and beautiful things are so wonderful and so beautiful that we can never be comfortable with them.  In Roy’s final encounter with the mother ship and the extraterrestrials aboard, Spielberg captures both the fear and the wonder, both the unease and the joy.  We feel awe.

One of the most interesting and celebrated aspects of the movie is how the aliens choose to communicate: through music.  Through the simplicity of musical tones great gulfs of difference are bridged.  Through art the transcendent is attained, the divine is communed with.  Perhaps the scariest part of the movie is that to achieve transcendence, to achieve communion, all else must be rejected, abandoned, and forgotten.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA, 1977)

Written and directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Richard Dreyfus and François Truffaut.