This review includes SPOILERS for this 40-year-old film. – editor
There has perhaps never been in the history of cinema a movie more effective at inspiring wonder than Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is as effective today, forty years beyond its initial release, as it was then. The context of the film – the post-Watergate paranoia, pre-internet disconnectedness, late 70s suburban malaise – might feel the slightest bit foreign to our world, but that only works to increase the film’s mythological power. It plays like a Biblical story – The Gospel According to Steven. It’s no accident that Spielberg explicitly features The Ten Commandments in the diegesis.
Yes, Roy Neary enters the spaceship* and leaves his family in the end, but that’s only a problem if you believe in the value of the nuclear family more than you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials and what encountering them would mean for humanity. Roy Neary abandoning his family is offensive in the way that:
Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword. I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. People’s enemies are members of their own households. Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them. (Matthew 10:34-39)
Close Encounters posits a new reality and forces people to choose which reality they are going to live into. It recognizes that new revelations conflict with old revelations and only those willing to hazard old ways of being human are able to step fully into what is new. Peter and James dropped their fishing nets and abandoned their father’s boat in favor of the Kingdom of Heaven; Roy Neary loses his job, his wife, and his kids but gains the heavens in return.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is lit with an evangelist’s fire. It’s flamboyant and animated, the showiest of films. It has a sense of conviction absent from purely commercial films. It believes in extraterrestrials. It believes in the potential of a close encounter to bring humanity together. In 1977 as today, that kind of optimism is welcome.
Released the same year as Star Wars, Close Encounters signals the end of an era in science-fiction filmmaking begun by 2001: A Space Odyssey, an era fueled by the real-world space race in which humanity was clamoring to go out into the stars to fulfill both geopolitical and Homeric ambitions to prove the innate strength of being human and to try ways of being human against one another. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the stars come to us, touch down in all parts of the world, and invite us to come together to step into a new reality. It’s a response to space race strivings that believes in the better angels of our natures. In one especially Spielbergian moment, an old man holds up a sign that reads “Stop and Be Friendly,” and I’m not sure if he’s holding it up for the aliens or for the government helicopters terrorizing the faithful sky-watchers on the ridge. Likely both. The film is magnanimous, hopeful, and sincere.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s religious vision is striking. Coupled with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, another Spielberg film I rewatched recently, I understand why my movie-loving, Christian mother didn’t encourage her children to watch these early Spielberg sci-fi films when we were little. She wanted to first instill in us the spiritual vision encapsulated in the Bible that we might be in awe of Jesus’ promised everlasting life rather than whatever lifeforms outer space might contain. As an adult, watching Close Encounters and feeling its zeal makes me long for similarly odd and compelling narratives about the faith I espouse, stories that recognize that this kind of conversion is both scary and exciting, packed with possibility and likely to upend all we currently know. “The people who lived in the dark have seen a great light… Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:16-17) Pass the mashed potatoes. We have a story to tell.
*Thankfully, this 40th anniversary theatrical presentation doesn’t go in the ship with him.