In 1977, a science-fiction/fantasy/action film written and directed by George Lucas, Star Wars, grabbed the pop culture zeitgeist like few films before or after. While I saw Star Wars several times that summer, another film held my imagination and interest until its November release date. The film in question? Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg's follow-up to Jaws, the blockbuster adaptation of Peter Benchley's bestselling 1974 novel. Long production delays and massive overruns were quickly forgotten as Jaws became the all-time box-office leader, if only temporarily (Star Wars took the title two years later). Post-Jaws, Spielberg could pick any project to direct, ultimately deciding to return to a long gestating project that began with a screenplay written by Paul Schrader (Mishima, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) originally titled Watch the Skies (after the last line from 1951's The Thing from Another World).
J. Allen Hynek, a scientific consultant and advisor who worked with the Air Force advisor Project Blue Book, wrote a serious book on UFOs that sparked Spielberg's imagination (mine too). Hynek served as a consultant on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As thanks, Spielberg gave Hynek a cameo in the last scene (he's smoking a pipe). More importantly, Hynek developed the UFO classification system (i.e., first encounter: sighting of a UFO; second encounter: evidence of a UFO; third encounter: physical contact with aliens) that gave Spielberg the final title of his film. A decade earlier, Star Trek: The Original Series' mission statement explicitly called for visiting other worlds, not to conquer, but to explore. It was that message of hope and optimism that profoundly affected me at an early age.
At the time, everything I came across in analog newspapers, magazines (e.g., Starlog), and the occasional television show suggested that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would capture my imagination in a way Star Wars, set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," couldn't (and didn't). Although I saw Star Wars multiple times theatrically between the summer of 1977 and the summer of 1978, my obsession was negligible in comparison to my friends, some of whom saw Star Wars more than a dozen times. I didn't realize that my deep interest in UFOs (I believed, I truly believed) gathered from every book and magazine I could find, made me the perfect audience for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Like other proto-film-geeks, I collected mass market novelizations, Marvel Comics adaptations (likewise with their 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars adaptations), and (pre-VHS, pre-cable) trading cards that I would order in the way they appeared in the film, allowing me, however crudely, the opportunity to revisit Close Encounters of the Third Kind repeatedly. What I didn't realize then, however, was that my religious upbringing (Catholic), influenced my response to Close Encounters of the Third Kind too. What was Roy Neary's (Richard Dreyfuss) journey if not a spiritual one, translated into a modern, secular context, one in which the benevolent, childlike aliens were stand-ins for our better selves?
That question leads us back to the subject of this article, the pivotal scene (and inciting incident) that begins Roy on his physical, emotional, and ultimately spiritual journey, the scene where he first encounters a UFO. It's Neary's "road to Damascus" moment, the vision of a resurrected Jesus Christ that turned Paul away from persecuting Christians, converting to Christianity, and becoming an early leader of the Christian church. That idea and the vision of a mountain both appeared in Paul Shrader's uncredited first draft. Neary's first encounter with the UFO sets him irrevocably on the path toward Devil's Tower and the mothership. It's no coincidence that Neary is parked on a train crossing, lost, when he makes first contact, needing guidance and direction. Gravity disappears temporarily, upending Neary, a literal sign that his calm suburban life is about to change.
Claude Lacombe (director François Truffaut), the leader of the UN-associated group attempting to make contact with the aliens, calls what Neary experienced that night an "implanted vision.." Neary is not alone in receiving the call. His journey, his story, overlaps with that of Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), has been kidnapped by the aliens. Neary's first encounter with the aliens is full of awe and wonder. Jillian's encounter with the aliens is anything but full of awe or wonder. It's the closest Spielberg comes to the malevolent aliens of the 1950s. Despite receiving a similar vision to Neary's, Jillian's journey ends when the aliens return her son.
In a plot development Spielberg later regretted, Neary's increasingly bizarre behavior compels his wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), to move out of their house with their three children, Toby (Justin Dreyfuss), Brad (Shawn Bishop), and Sylvia (Adrienne Campbell). Driven by the vision, he builds a replica of a mountain in his living room. Without human entanglements, Neary can literally ascend the mountain and complete his spiritual/physical journey. The aliens' technology makes them godlike and whose physical appearance makes them childlike, the latter a trait Neary shares and which propels him to discover the meaning behind the vision. Like any character on the Hero's Journey, Neary hesitates more than once, offering to return to rationality in exchange for the return of his family, but each time the vision proves too strong to resist.
For the Special Edition released in 1980, Spielberg shot a new, effects-heavy ending, taking Neary inside the mothership as it flies up into the night sky. The original cut ends with him entering and the mothership flying away, the secular version of an afterlife. For a later home video release, Spielberg reverted to the original ending. The theatrical and director's cuts left the completion of Neary's journey to our imaginations, where, as Spielberg ultimately recognized, it belonged. Even better? Spielberg said everything he wanted to say with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and never attempted to make a sequel. For that and much else, we owe Spielberg thanks.
Feel free to share your favorite scene (or scenes) from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the comments section below.