Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Steven Spielberg

Power, Mystery, Deception

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Written and directed by Steven Spielberg.  Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Francois Truffaut.  PG; 137 mins.  Rotten Tomatoes 100% (40th Anniversary Edition); Metacritic 90%.

What to make of power and splendor, especially of the sort that elicits awe and a powerful devotional attraction?  There is hardly a harder question, particularly in these days of oozy-slick TV preachers and megachurches equipped like a Hollywood soundstage.  Well, put simply, the fact that something or another waddles and quacks does not necessarily make it a duck.  Exactly how very difficult this sort of discernment can be lies at the center of Steven Spielberg’s wildly successful and masterful 1977 sci-fi spectacle Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A very large part of its success lies in the fact that it is loosely (and very effectively) based on the Moses story, just as Spielberg’s later E.T. effectively retold the story of Jesus.  It is still perhaps one of the very best films of its kind and bears re-watching for the sheer pleasure of it, especially with today’s widescreen TVs, audio systems, and a new 40th Anniversary Director’s Cut.

A power company lineman in northern Indiana, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is an average middle-class guy with wife and noisy offspring.  And as the opening scenes show, he also likes things that whistle and clang; he has an electric train set set up in the living room, and he’s the only one playing with it.  Sooner than he can imagine, he will run into the ultimate unimaginable real-life contraption that beeps and roars in transcendental magnitude and magnificence.  First the lights go out in a massive power failure, and Neary is called to help track down the difficulty.  Then, lost on a completely dark rural road in his service truck in the middle of the night, Leary runs into to his burning bush (or it could be Paul on the road to Damascus).

Close encounters 1

Light intense in brightness, heat, and sheer power quite literally scald Neary’s skin and soul (akin to Moses’ sunburn after chatting with God on Sinai).

At once terrified and fascinated by this wondrous noisy and bright bump in the night, Neary takes off in hot pursuit.  And thereafter things only get more dazzling and compelling.  Soon enough, deserted by his family for his increasingly bizarre (and scary) behavior, Neary is on an obsessive quest to “meet” this dazzling and mysterious power that has taken over his imagination and, let us say, very soul.  And he’s not the only one out there searching, joined as he is by distraught mothers whose children have been “taken up” by this mysterious Light and just plain disappeared into thin air.  And of course, there’s the “feds” who’d like to “meet” this something or another from beyond.

For reasons they don’t fathom—other than they are inwardly “compelled” to be there–Neary and others (and the feds) end up at a mysterious “holy mountain” (Devil’s Tower in Wyoming) where, in one of the most remarkable sequences in cinema history, they actually encounter face-to-face in the flesh Whatever-in-the-World-Is-This.  Put simply, this fantastically numinous power that dwarfs humankind in intelligence, technology, might, musicality (which seems their language), magnitude, and pure overwhelming dazzle.  And indeed, awe-struck, stunning in spades it is, to the nth magnitude, in mysterium and beauty, like the heavens themselves come down to envelop humankind.  And thanks to Spielberg’s transfixing movie-making, audiences are too, “bigly.”  The “mother ship” that hovers above Devil’s Tower dwarfs the tower itself, and it plays a rapturous light-soaked greeting to the puny humans.

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No better example of direct religious encounter has ever been put on film, and Neary proves more than eager to forget his earthly family and hand over his life and very soul to these beautiful-unto-numinous creatures, and he is duly taken up into the light itself, if that makes sense (alas, see the movie).

There’s a rub, however, and it is perhaps easy to overlook in the blitz of sensory and spiritual ecstasy.  For all their dazzle, these “whatevers” from space have proven not so nice (they themselves seem made of transparent light when Spielberg finally gives a glimpse at the very end).

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In fact, they’re very much on the nasty side.  They may mean well (maybe), but they’ve deployed terrible means to show it.  Quite beyond their alluring “tricks” of massive power outages, scaring hordes out of their wits, compelling ordinary people to throw over their lives to journey to the holy mountain, they forty years before kidnapped a horde of WW II fighter pilots and their planes.  And they have done the same to adorable small children of, yes, very loving parents.  Indeed, when looking at the hard moral reality of their means of address to humanity, they seem far from the deep human craving for cosmic love of some sort.

In short, not all that is shiny and bright and fetching intends well for us.  The church has overlooked that possibility in the 1930s in Germany, in the long history of race in the United States, and in the far right-wing evangelical exaltation of Trump, a man even secularists label morally reptilian and mean.  In all these instances, the dazzle and buzz of the moment overwhelms questions about the inmost moral (and spiritual) character of the sound-and-light show.  Forsooth, it is a remarkably easy thing to do, as Paul warns, with the very good reason of his own history, one moment a very nasty perp and the next laid-low and blind by the very power he scorned (and David, apple of God’s eye on the roof deck spying what’s-her-name, murder, and hell to pay later).  For sure, then, woe is us if we overlook just these few glaring examples in bothering to discern.  Because it walks and quacks does not mean it’s a duck, especially if it can’t swim, and flash and dazzle and a warm and giddy inward splash may be, to say the least, ill-founded.

written by Roy Anker