Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind part one

Roy Neary sees the light.

(For those who wish to read some of my earlier thoughts on this movie, I direct you to here.)

Roy Neary is a perfectly ordinary man who receives a powerful, mysterious message from above. He is driven To Solve the Mystery of this message at the expense of everything in his life.

WHAT STANDS IN HIS WAY? His wife, occasionally his children, his job, his responsibilities as a husband and father, the mores and customs of his suburban town, the UN, the US Air Force and Army.

Close Encounters has, in addition to Roy, two lesser protagonists — Lacombe, a French scientist in charge of the UN mission to solve the same mystery as Roy, and Gillian, a single mother, contacted from above on the same evening as Roy. Lacombe has to battle against the secretive mind-set of the US government, while Gillian must struggle with her own conflicting feelings about the beings at the center of the mystery. She, like Roy, is driven to solve the mystery, but whereas Roy is motivated by a kind of ecstatic fervor, Gillian’s fervor is mingled with the fear and dread she feels because the mysterious beings swiped her kid.

To make things more interesting yet, each one of the minor protagonists in Close Encounters has their own little “buddy protagonist.” Lacombe has Laughlin, a cartographer who is pressed into service as Lacombe’s translator, and Gillian has Barry, her three-year-old boy, the kid who has no trouble receiving the message from above and achieves in 48 minutes what takes Roy over 2 hours — to get aboard a spaceship and meet creatures from another world.

Okay, and let’s get one thing straight, for the purposes of simplifying this whole thing — these creatures, the aliens, the extraterrestrials — we’re talking about God here. The inciting incident in Close Encounters is that God makes an announcement that He’s coming to Earth, and anyone interested in meeting Him should show up on such-and-such a day at such-and-such place, ’cause that’s where He’ll be. Roy is given a message from God and spends the first two acts trying to decipher it. Once he has deciphered the message, he spends the third act getting to the rendezvous point against formidable odds, and then, in Act IV, meets God. That’s the movie we’re talking about here. Many are called, few are able to answer, and of all who receive the call, only Roy is chosen as worthy. And look, it’s another Spielberg protagonist whose goal is To Prove His Worth.

Spielberg would make plenty more good movies, but Close Encounters is the first, and in some ways his truest and most deeply felt, most personal work. In this movie he finds a great subject, agreat metaphor and the purest expression of his aesthetic. If you weren’t around in 1977 to experience how new and exciting and original all this seemed, I pity you. There’s a reason why Spielberg is Spielberg and Spielberg qua Spielberg begins here.

ACT I we could call “Roy Gets The Message”, ACT II is “Roy Interprets The Message,” ACT III is “Roy Acts On The Message” and ACT IV is “Roy Meets The Messenger.”

The first thing we note in Close Encounters is Spielberg’s use of light as quality unto itself. Light is to Close Encounters as Water is to Jaws — it’s a stand-in for the creatures at the center of the narrative, creatures we are told about from the very first moments of the narrative but won’t really get a good look at until Act IV. Instead we see their lights, their shadows, the effects they have on things around us. Because not only do the creatures in Close Encounters generate light, they also generate darkness and manipulate light to their purposes. I am reminded, of course, of God’s first words in the Old Testament, and also Henry Jones’s goal in The Last Crusade — “Illumination.”

The first thing we see in Close Encounters is car headlights approaching toward us through a dust storm, and given the buildup we get approaching this image, the creepy music in the blackness building to a crescendo as we cut to blinding whiteness, we are forgiven for thinking we’re about to see something otherworldly. Spielberg will play off our desire to “see the light” to comic effect more than once in Close Encounters.

We meet Laughlin and Lacombe and the first clue to the mystery is discovered. (And here begins Spielberg’s fascination with WWII-era fighter planes, which would return for 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark and especially Empire of the Sun, where they are elevated to the level of godhood themselves.)

Next we have the air-traffic-controllers scene, perhaps my favorite in the movie, but the screenwriter asks “What is this doing here? What does it get us? Why did they build this set, hire these actors, spend days shooting this scene?” The answer, I think, lies in the utterly brilliant dialogue between the controllers, the unemphatic, technical jargon they monotonously recite back and forth. The point of this scene is to show that THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING. Real UFOs, in a real world, not just some hallucinations in the minds of some lost souls. There is nuts-and-bolts reality to this phenomenon, which is one way Spielberg has of raising the stakes: God is coming, and he’s a measurable quantity.

(The casting in the air-traffic-controllers scene, like all the casting in Close Encounters, is simply perfect. Each one of those dozens of faces we see is exactly right, and each contains worlds of experience that we wonder about long after the movie is over. Spielberg obviously loves all these people and has a real knack for casting, which is why it confuses me that he sometimes casts dull, obvious or uninteresting actors in key roles in later movies.)

It takes until 11:00 into the movie to meet our principal protagonist Roy Neary. That’s a long time but not as long as the 17 minutes it takes to meet Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, the only movie of 1977 to make more money than Close Encounters.

What does Roy Neary want? When we meet him, what Roy Neary wants is to play with his train set and go see Pinocchio. He’s an archetype new to the movies, the Spielbergian man-child. He’s more immature than his own son Brad — when Brad asks Roy to help with his homework, Roy’s response is to say that he graduated high school so he wouldn’t have to do homework any more. He then proceeds to try, not very hard, to help Brad with fractions by wrecking one of his trains. He’s the father and paterfamilias of his brood, but he’s the one who wants to see the “dumb cartoon rated G for kids.” He has obviously stumbled into marriage and children without any plan — his wife is more mother than sweetheart to him and his toys take up more room in the house than his children’s. One suspects that, any day now, Roy is going to have a mid-life crisis where he suddenly looks around and says “Oh my God, who am I and how the hell did I get here?” Which, interestingly enough, is kind of what happens.

(The Nearys are watching The Ten Commandments on TV when we meet them. They watch that sluggish spectacle the best way one can — while doing something else, anything else at the same time. The Ten Commandments is inserted into Close Encounters as the third or fourth religious reference in the narrative, and is there to link together Roy Neary and, of all people, Moses, as men who are contacted by God and must lead a group of people to deliverance in a promised land. Roy falls a little short of Moses’s achievement of establishing a nation in the desert — he only leads two people to the mountain, and one gets knocked down by Pharoah’s army. He does, however, meet God finally and get The Message. It is not recorded whether or not his hair turns gray in the process.)

(Pinocchio, the reader will recall, is about a puppet who longs to become a real live boy.  A blue fairy comes along to grant him his wish, but the wish comes with certain conditions: Pinocchio must, yes, Prove His Worth before he is granted boyhood.  Young screenwriters, pay attention: familiarize yourself with the classics — they became classics for a reason.  Spielberg not only lifts plot strands of Exodus and Pinocchio to suit his purposes, he tells you he’s doing it.  They’re classics, they exist to be stolen from.)

The lights go out in Muncie, but I get the feeling the lights were never really on for Roy, and he sets out in his truck to find, yes, illumination.

Next we meet little Barry Guiler, one of the few characters in the movie more childlike than Roy. Spielberg teaches us to fear the light before we understand its meaning, but little Barry understands it immediately and runs to it. The implication, I think, is that Roy would climb in a UFO in his very first encounter if his relative maturity, and its attendant fear, didn’t prevent him from doing so.

(Barry, of course, is a classic Spielberg child — a boy living in a rumpled suburban house with a single mother and absent father. The fact that Roy abandons his wife and children in order to run off with Barry’s mother, only to abandon her, too, in her moment of hesitation, in order to pursue his vision, speaks to a corner of Spielberg’s psyche that is beyond the reach of this humble journal.)

Roy trundles down the road in his truck in the dark. “Help! I’m lost!” he exclaims. Well, when the student is ready the teacher will appear, and as soon as Roy admits to being in darkness, he is shown the light. Roy’s Gap opens wider than any Spielberg protagonist’s yet — he expected to go out and repair some electrical equipment, and instead he is called upon by God.

The architecture of these sequences, of course, is pure cinematic genius, the full flowering of the one critic’s dictum that Spielberg is the bastard child of Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock. The impulses of Disney and Hitchcock — Wonder and Terror — are balanced magnificently throughout Close Encounters. Take the first appearance of the UFOs: after minutes of nail-biting suspense, they finally appear and drift along that mountain road, frightening and startling and peculiar. They pass by, then there’s a beat, and they are followed by a little red pixie UFO. Classic Hitchcock meets classic Disney. Throughout Close Encounters Spielberg promises terror then delivers wonder, then promises wonder and delivers terror instead, keeping you constantly on edge, not knowing what to expect. God moves in mysterious ways, and a movie about God that’s all wonder and no terror doesn’t understand its subject.

(The mountain-road sequence also marks, I believe, the debut of what I’ve come to think of as “The Spielberg Shot,” a slow dolly into the face of an ordinary person, gazing in wonder at some incredible thing offscreen, usually from a low angle to give the ordinary person a noble stature. This is not a coincidence, and it’s part of what I mean about Close Encounters being Spielberg’s purest statement — one of the bold theses of Close Encounters, and all Spielberg’s work, is that God is available to everyone, and that the most ordinary of us are sometimes the most valuable. I’d love to see a Youtube compilation of those shots — they can be found in almost every Spielberg movie from here on out.)

Anyway, Roy receives the message, but he receives it in a way that he can’t readily explain. He races home and wakes up his family, in the hopes that they too will receive the message, but he can’t even adequately describe it. “There was a red whoosh!” is the most coherent he can get. His wife Ronnie tries to help, but she is too mired in the everyday world to grasp Roy’s vision. It’s telling that she can only translate Roy’s ecstatic ramblings in terms of consumer products — “Was it like a taco? Was it like one of those Sara Lee moon-shaped cookies?” Ronnie, like Roy, has been thrust into adulthood long before she’s ready — she misses the early days of Roy’s courtship and would rather “snuggle” on the mountainside while Roy watches for signs of God. In another movie, even another Spielberg movie, the protagonist would come to learn that a family is more God than anything that might appear from a thundercloud, but this is not that movie, and in Act II Roy will throw away his job, responsibilities and family to get nearer to God.



23 Responses to “Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind part one”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Are you going to deal at all with the ways Spielberg has tinkered with the film over the years?

  2. Are you writing a book? Because, I mean, you should.

  3. igorxa says:

    when you first said this movie was about god, the first thing i thought of was little barry and the old testament “and a child shall lead them” (isaiah 11:6) speaking of the end times, or even more apropos, jesus saying that those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven must do so as children (it’s all a little rusty, thought, from those yester years as a preacher’s son) and i’d never thought of the ufos as god before. i have to watch this movie again!

  4. teamwak says:

    I think visually and themically(sp) this is the best of his 80’s movies. My love for this knows no bounds. And the ending…..

    I love Indy, but this was something else.

  5. curt_holman says:

    You know, I think part of me always made a subconscious association between this film and ‘Oh, God!’ with John Denver and George Burns, and it never became conscious until just now.

  6. greyaenigma says:

    This means something. This is important.

    I ate mashed potatoes yesterday, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t sculpt them. I watched the movie earlier tonight.

    Nitpick: I believe IMDB is wrong — it’s “Jillian”, not “Gillian”. It’s the former in the subtitles and credits. (And Wikipedia.) Also my sister’s name.

    Note: the air traffic control center in the opening is… Indianopolis. Nod to Jaws, or coincidental? Maybe only Steve knows for sure.

    I love the use of non-score music in this movie, especially the TV in the background during Roy’s epiphany. Also, I think the hippie guy is whistling “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain” before the UFOs whip around the hill. (And before the protagonists climb around the mountain.)

    Love the base chatter — alternating between military officiousness and “holy shit”. I never quite get the third guy on the mountain chase — I guess he’s only introduced to show that the crop dusting reall had an effect — but we were told it did, and the birds demonstrated that anyway.

    You’re leaning heavily on the God metaphor. Is this something from Spielberg? It never occurred to me before. in fact, every time I watch this, the chapel scene preparing all the red shirts for sacrifice strikes me as very much out of place. (Not improbable for a US-run operation, mind you, just incongruous for the movie.)

    A thought that amused me: as the musical “conversation” winds down, it sounded almost to my ears as if it could veer off into the Jaws theme. It’d be great if space sharks then spilled out of the ship.

    Thank god they never made a sequel of this. They’d’ve explained all about the special psychic powers that Barry and Roy shared that made the aliens pick them for their never-ending war against the space sharks.

    And was I the only one that thought of Raiders when they rolled the big globe out? Always liked that scene, too.

    • Todd says:

      Re: This means something. This is important.

      You’re leaning heavily on the God metaphor. Is this something from Spielberg?

      This is something from watching the movie fifty or so times. Screenwriters look for strong metaphors to give their work weight and heft, Spielberg obviously sees the human craving for contact with extraterrestrial life as a search for God. The movie can certainly be enjoyed as a science fiction movie about contact with aliens, but I’m not the first person to make a connection between our post-God, post-WWII secular-humanist world and the explosion of flying-saucer sightings. People have a basic instinct toward the existence of a “higher power,” if high technology kills that instinct, people will find it within the high tech world. That’s one theory of the origin of UFOs anyway. It’s not a coincidence that the first modern reports began as sightings of “Foo Fighters” from tail-gunners of US planes over Europe in WWII, and it’s not a coincidence that Spielberg begins his movie with a beat about the disappearances of Flight 19.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Re: This means something. This is important.

        Reminds me of a joke: A team of mathematicians come up with a highly complex formula to determine the existence of God. None of their computers are powerful enough, so they network them together. That’s not enough. Eventually, the project becomes popular enough that every computer on Earth is networked together and the program is run. The team enters their query: “Is there a God?” And their reply: “There is now.”

        Do you think the incongruity of the chapel scene is deliberate? Old style faith vs. new? Or is it just my imagination?

        Faith is a funny thing. It’s often easier to transfer to something entirely different than to discard.

        • Todd says:

          Re: This means something. This is important.

          I would say the chapel scene is designed to link together our traditional notions of God with the movie’s. That’s why, as the preacher at the front of his multi-denominational chapel spouts his boilerplate homilies, the astronauts are all revealed to be not listening, looking out anxiously to the big fucking UFO outside.

  7. greyaenigma says:

    I give up. Where is Lance Henriksen in this movie?

    [Oh, he appears to be Lancombe’s assistant, who always seems to be in the background, and never seems to have a speaking part.]

    • Todd says:

      He has one or two lines — he hands Lacombe some drawings in Major Walsh’s office and says “yes” or “here” or something. And I think there’s one other place. And he was one of the best “Spielberg shots” in Act IV as the E.T.s are taking off. His head looks as noble as a Roman general’s.

  8. “If you weren’t around in 1977 to experience how new and exciting and original all this seemed, I pity you. There’s a reason why Spielberg is Spielberg and Spielberg qua Spielberg begins here.”

    Good point. I was 16 in ’77 and wow, what a summer for movies. CE3K and Star Wars! I saw CE3K at least three times that year, the third time being the most memorable, I saw it at a Drive-In! You can imagine how we felt while watching the end of the film and being outside during a star-lit summer night!
    (practically pleading for those lights to appear!)

    “He has obviously stumbled into marriage and children without any plan — his wife is more mother than sweetheart to him and his toys take up more room in the house than his children’s.”

    I guess I could check out IMDB, but doesn’t Terri Garr play the wife also in “Oh, God” ? Both women married to men being contacted by God.

    “(Pinocchio, the reader will recall, is about a puppet who longs to become a real live boy.  A blue fairy comes along to grant him his wish, but the wish comes with certain conditions: Pinocchio must, yes, Prove His Worth before he is granted boyhood.  Young screenwriters, pay attention: familiarize yourself with the classics — they became classics for a reason.  Spielberg not only lifts plot strands of Exodus and Pinocchio to suit his purposes, he tells you he’s doing it.  They’re classics, they exist to be stolen from.)”

    Spielberg will revisit the unreal boy wising to be a real boy, and the Blue Fairy once more with “A.I.”

    • Todd says:

      doesn’t Terri Garr play the wife also in “Oh, God” ? Both women married to men being contacted by God.

      Not to mention Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. “Girlfriend of visionary” seems to have been her metier.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I always loved the shot you reference in your selected image (set of lights pulls up behind Roy and drives past, second set of lights pulls up and levitates over). Subtle touch and one of the greatest WTF? moments in cinema.

  10. Anonymous says:


    I know this was written for a specific purpose, in a specific way, for a specific audience… but I’ve been totally blown away by it.

    I’m just childhood fan of the film, being faintly aware of more depth beyond my reach.

    I’m… “Roy Neary”.

    It’s like I just saw the movie for the first time with my eyes uncovered, without a theater or a TV.

    Thank you for giving me “answers. That wasn’t to much to ask, was it?”


    Fine work.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Yes, the fact is I murdered him in order to better promote my blog. I confess! You win, M. Dupin!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I knew it! Thanks for confirming!

    Mr. Alcott, thank you for confirming what I’ve just realized over the thanksgiving holiday. I knew there was something deeper. I realized why I love this film so much.For me the end sequence is a metaphor for the rapture. I’ve noticed to distinct fan types in the sci-fi genre. Those who were and are still star wars fans and those that made the connection with Close encounters of the third kind. They rarely overlap. I remember the sci fi awards which premiered once giving Star Wars the greatest sci-fi ever made. This puzzled me for years because to me it was obvious that they were wrong. My moms ex-husbands name was Ralph Trumbull and he told me that he took care of Douglas as a child after something had happened to his parents. I can’t recall exactly what the incident was, but that was Ralphs story anyway.