Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Writing about Close Encounters of the Third Kind is difficult, presenting the same problem facing the characters in the film. How does one put into words such an otherworldly and unexplainable experience? Explanation may only cause more confusion, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind works best in motion, a synthesis of multiple elements all creating something mystical, profound and amazing.

It’s this experience that changes the life of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). One moment he’s literally lost and directionless and then a piercing light appears. Everything around him shakes uncontrollably and begins to defy the laws of nature. And then, it’s gone. All that’s left is a profound desire to discover the nature of the experience and a strange, seemingly unexplainable vision.

But Roy knows there’s something to that vision, it cannot be simply delusion even Ronnie (Teri Garr), his wife, tells him otherwise, as do scientific and military officials. “This means something. This is important,” Roy says as he stares at a lumpy sculpture he’s created. It’s this pursuit, this drive to know, the inane human sense of curiosity that becomes the new focus of Roy’s life, even to the detriment to those around him.

His pursuit has two implications. The more lofty and thematic implication is a metaphor for the human search for meaning and purpose in the universe. In this way, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a deeply philosophical film, perhaps the most philosophical of all films. On a meta film level, the search for meaning is a reflection of the meaning imbued into all films, the hidden thematic text of all films.

But what meaning is discovered in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is where the film might become more problematic, depending on personal views. The film heavily draws on Biblical images. The blinding light from above is similar to Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. Likewise, near the end there’s this great moving cloud that could be seen as an allusion to the cloud the Israelites followed out of Egypt.

As the audience comes to find out, the source of all these strange, seemingly supernatural phenomena are actually the activities of alien spacecrafts. If taken literally, the implication of this is that religion is based upon human ignorance of the universe and in the end Empiricism is the best way to understand the universe. This is further cemented by the final moments of the film which reinforce the message one of the headlines that litters the protagonist’s room: “seeing is believing.”

But are the aliens to be taken literally, or is it a metaphor? There’s such a sense of mystery, a feeling of awe. When the characters describe what they see and experience, it sounds more religious than scientific. Are the aliens, therefore, a metaphor for God, a benevolent force watching from above, mysterious and unknown by those whom he hasn’t revealed himself to through the divine and supernatural?

Did Spielberg intentionally leave Close Encounters of the Third Kind open to both interpretations? I’ve watch this film several times now and I’m still not sure. Sometimes, I think this film has to be religious in order to make any sense, other times, it’s a deeply scientific pursuit, echoing how much more humans have to learn and don’t know about the universe. Does it have to be either of those to be a meaningful film or is part of the mastery in the ambiguity? I don’t know, but I do know that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that begs the exploration of deeper questions so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a deeper level of thought needed to begin unraveling the complexities and nuance of this cinematic marvel.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing