Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

I saw Close Encounters at least twice when it was initially released, and on one of those occasions I was reduced to a weeping mess by the film’s conclusion. After rewatching it all these years later, it’s clearer to me why it hit me so hard back then. Yes, it’s an alien visitation movie and it’s got all the UFO porn you could ask for. But if we take the case that the mythology of extraterrestrial intelligence has been inserted into the culture in order to mainstream various forms of esoteric and Eastern religious beliefs, the film reads as an allegory of the Boomer generation’s nihilistic and narcissistic pursuit of Enlightenment. Roy Neary’s final decision to join the aliens is meant to be the triumphant fulfillment of his messianic vision quest, but he ends up jettisoning his family in the process. Whether it’s the chase for hedonistic thrills or the desire for institutional power and stature, Neary’s departure feels like a large scale symbolic removal of the father figure from the pop culture consciousness. It’s an act of cinematic demolition that has proceeded unabated since then.

Above all else, Close Encounters is a study in the power of visual and aural symbols. If you think this is a reach, consider the scene when François Truffaut’s Lacombe and Bob Balaban’s David Laughlin travel to Northern India to record the ecstatic song of the villagers. When the translator asks the villagers to identify the source of the song, they simultaneously point to the sky. The crowd is singing the 5-note melodic motif that will eventually be used to communicate with the aliens. Good luck getting that out of your brain. Jay Dyer has suggested that this tone sequence resembles the Tetragrammaton, and I think this is plausible. However, I also it’s a variation on the Gayatri Mantra, a devotional hymn to the sun deity, Savitr. Spielberg himself has said that it’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” meets science fiction’. A filmmaker as skillful as Spielberg doesn’t divulge something like that arbitrarily so it’s not unreasonable to surmise that a chant used to communicate with beings from the stars carries all the esoteric meaning connected to stars within the occult and Eastern traditions. Even the imagery on the poster suggests the same idea. An open stretch of highway with a glowing light emanating from beyond the horizon.

Roy’s vision of Devil’s Tower is similar. He is smitten with what amounts to a divine revelation of an Axis Mundi or a Holy Mountain. He is so consumed by the vision that he is compelled to fill an entire room in his home building a replica using everything from garbage pails to uprooted shrubbery. His wife played by Teri Garr is understandably frustrated and disturbed by his obsession and eventually leaves Roy with the children. Roy is initially upset, but his distress evaporates when he receives visual confirmation of his vision on the television newscast. He defies federal orders to stay clear of the area and begins his pilgrimage. But what kind of quest is this if Roy’s Mount Sinai is called Devil’s Tower?

There is a conspiracy component to this film as well. While it’s undoubtedly meant to stoke the longstanding theory of a government coverup of UFOs, it’s very subtly telling you that the military-intelligence complex is capable of manufacturing a public panic. Right down to the deployment of nerve gas agents that correspond to the the fake threat promulgated in the news media. I also couldn’t help but think of the ghetto liquidation scene from Schindler’s List when I saw the panicked townspeople feverishly scrambling to board the train. Obviously, Close Encounters wasn’t nearly as harrowing as Schindler’s List, but the essential idea that was put across felt the same. A frightened citizenry being herded onto a train by military forces. If we take the case that the coordinates featured in the film point to some hidden military dictatorship ensconced beneath or around the Denver Airport, then maybe this film is a nightmarish piece of predictive programming I certainly never previously imagined.

Roy’s ascension to the alien spacecraft reads as an initiation rite and an ode to Boomerseque self-absorption and narcissism. In the absence of any larger sense of purpose or meaning, an opportunity to join either a secret society, fraternal order or an “alien species” seems like a more important quest than being a devoted father. As it turns out, Richard Dreyfuss was declared a Mason at sight in 2011, so Spielberg’s casting choice was a window of insight into how he is perceived to the establishment elite.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind belongs to a well established tradition of films which explore the idea of a visitation from an advanced and benign intelligence. Picking up from the globalist message of The Day The Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters arguably jump started the UFO mythology for the modern era of mass entertainment and internet culture. As shows like the X-Files and the recently released Project Blue Book attest, the appetite for UFOs is bigger than ever. Coincidentally, the stories appearing in the mainstream media which tease the prospect of an actual sign of extraterrestrial life are also multiplying. But is it a coincidence? Maybe after all of our hubristic posturing of scientific rationalism, people are ultimately drawn to one idea that provides a sense of something greater than our seemingly empty and insignificant existence.

WE ARE NOT ALONE.

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One thought on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

  1. larryzb says:

    ” . . He is smitten with what amounts to a divine revelation of an Axis Mundi or a Holy Mountain.”

    This whole piece is really good, great analysis. And, it appears that you have read your Joseph Campbell, who often mentioned in his books the axis mundi (axis or center of the world).

    Many Westerners have largely left behind their attachment to Christianity, sorry to say. Given what has been normalized in the West in the past several decades, it is quite correct to refer to the West as “post- Christian” Yet, there is a yearning in all of our hearts for something more than what this world offers, there is a spiritual longing in us. Today, people are looking to satisfy this longing, but they are looking in the wrong areas (dead ends).

    Liked by 1 person

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