#64 Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Aliens, humans meet for jam session. #sixwordmovies
Mashed potatoes? Yes please, thank you. #sixwordmovies
This means something. This is important. #sixwordmovies

#64 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

It’s difficult for me to think about Close Encounters of the Third Kind in an objective manner. It’s one of my favorite movies of all-time and one of the first movies I remember seeing as a child. I went through a period of intense obsession with the stars, planets, and constellations when I was little. But what fascinated me most was the idea of UFOs and aliens somewhere out there, and that they might visit us, try to make contact with us. Abduct us. The adventure, the wonder, the danger that this implied was  enough to captivate my imagination. I didn’t understand science and I was entirely free of skepticism. And so stories about aliens held me enthralled, with both fear and immense excitement. CE3K is a film that recreates that sensation of childlike wonder as closely as is possible this side of the divide between innocence and experience.

A group of people gather in the middle of the night, bringing blankets and flashlights and playing cards to the bend in the road where strange lights had recently appeared. They’re meeting there hoping to catch a glimpse of the UFO that had recently been spotted. As lights begin to rise over the nearby cliff and fill the night sky, Richard Dreyfuss turns to his neighbor and says, “It’s like Halloween for grown-ups.” Then he adds with a smirk, as if he cannot stop himself, “Trick or treat.” Characters in the film continually compare the alien lights and contact with the aliens to food, especially candy. A little child exclaims “Ice cream!” as a UFO goes whizzing by. As Richard Dreyfuss’ character attempts to explain what the flying saucers look like, his wife teases him: “Was it like a taco? Or those Sara Lee Cookies?” Dreyfuss admits it looked to him like orange flavored ice cream. It’s as though the nature of the events he’s experiencing is so bewildering, so beyond his capability to understand that he is reduced to a child’s perspective and points of reference. And this is not accidental.

Steven Spielberg explains that Richard Dreyfuss was chosen for the role of  Roy Neary, a man compelled by an unexplainable impetus to seek out his destiny at Devil’s Tower, because he could portray that sort of grown man who is more of kid than his own children. When we first meet Neary, he is fiddling about with his elaborate model train set, and somewhere on the table a wind-up Jiminy Cricket tinkles “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Neary is the right kind of man to be psychically chosen by aliens for contact because he wants to believe, he lacks the closed, hardened mind that a more skeptical man might have. A skeptic might be driven insane if made to experience what Neary does. It may appear to those around him that Neary has gone mad, but quite the opposite is true. He is coming alive, he’s on the trail to truth. We are watching Neary’s awakening to enlightenment in this film, not his descent into madness. And the key to this awakening, the reason why the character doesn’t go insane, is because he’s willing to believe like a child, without a reason or an explanation. Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene depicts a small boy flinging a darkened door open wide, smoky orange light cascading into the room, his frightened mother running in to protect the boy from the unknown presence outside. Spielberg said of that scene that it is “symbolic of what only a child can do, is to trust the light,” and it is recreated at the end of the film as Dreyfuss stands with the aliens before bathing in the light from inside the mothership, and slowly climbs inside.

CE3K marks a departure from how human contact with aliens had always been portrayed in film before. Instead of the destruction and terror that resulted in our meeting with an alien race in films like War of the Worlds, here is a vision of friendship and possibility, a vision of coexistence and peace with the universe. The film’s climactic meeting between species is nervously yet tenderly initiated through the universal language of music, and consummated with smiles and friendly contact with alien hands. American cinema would become enamored with aliens and sci-fi in the years following CE3K, blockbusters Star Wars, E.T., and Ridley Scott’s Alien being only the tip of the iceberg.

Spielberg was right to not reveal the inside of the mothership. He said he believed that the interior of the alien spacecraft was the sole property of the audience’s imagination. And he’s right. No camera should venture there. It should remain the unsullied land of imagination. Because what CE3K excels at is prompting us to leave aside our doubt and skepticism and marvel at the possibility of what’s behind that door, to fill us with wonder at the prospect of what might be. It invites that hopeful and wide-eyed child inside each of us to trust the light and fling open the door.

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