Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is a Science-Fiction masterpiece written and directed by Steven Spielberg. The title denotes "human observations of actual aliens or animate beings" and is taken from the work of the United States astronomer, professor, and ufologist, Dr. Josef Allen Hynek (1910–1986).
Because CE3K with its enchanting musical theme of five notes (John Williams) is today such an integral part of modern Western culture it is difficult to imagine the impact it had on viewers back in 1977. The special effects are still amazing after all these years and the limitless possibilities of computer manipulated tricks not available at that time. The magnificent scenes and effects are not the real power of this movie which takes a very touching and realistic view of us humans encountering for the first time true aliens. Not as hostile monsters like Orson Welles and others had depicted them but as benevolent beings that show some gentle curiosity about us.
One of the unforgettable moments in Close Encounters
The events do not happen in deep space but rather in suburban America enhancing the realistic feeling similarly to that other blockbuster space movie by Steven Spielberger, ET the Extra-Terrestial (1983). The gentle touch of humour in both films actually adds to the realism. The focus is on the reactions of those invited: lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his unbelieving family, the superbly charming little Barry (Garry Guffin) and his single mother Jillian Guiller (Melinda Dillon); and on those in the know, the French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his assistant David Laughlin (Bob Balaban). The excellent cast of actors considerably raises the quality of this classic piece of cinematic art.
CE3K is a thoroughly religious movie. Not in the sense of any particular religion (the chosen are blessed to their trip with Christian prayers) but as an expression of the religious impact space and its mysteries have on humanity.
This is nicely emphasized by the Dharmsala-India sequence filmed at the village of Hal near Khalapur 35 miles from Mumbai. The religious behaviour is inspired by the sounds they have heard and the experience merges with their traditional way of expressing respect to the Holy by repeating a mantra.
The volcanic Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming
The choice of Devil's Tower, Wyoming as the place of close encounter was a strike of imaginative genius by Spielberg. The mysterious peak is not only a striking major landmark but this amazing pillar of phonolite porphyry is actually sacred to several Native American Plains tribes, including the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Kiowa. Ancients have tried to explain how such a thing came into being and the mountain creates religious awe. Its religious impact on the locals can be compared with that of the Uluru-Ayers Rock in Australia.
The film describes religious calling, something out of ordinary and bigger than everyday experience and humanity, that turns into obsession.
Steven Spielberg was undoubtedly influenced by the Exodus narrative and the classic Cecil B. deMille's Ten Commandments (1956) while writing about the Close Encounter. The mountain causes holy terror - in this case purposely created by the army. The Place of Encounter is "made sacred" by killing the sheep and other animals as happened in Mt. Sinai during the time of Moses:
The LORD also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it;whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments. He said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
THE CHOSEN ONES
Such holiness also includes restricted entry where only to the chosen and authorized are allowed to the Altar. The white garments of the awed scientists and observers standing up as the almost divine spaceship approaches in stages enhances the religious feeling.
LIGHT AND MUSIC
It is significant that the in the centre of the description of the spaceship are not the usual imaginary technological details of more advanced civilizations but rather LIGHT. This fundamental approach alone is enough to make CE3K such an exceptionally fine Sci-Fi movie.
And let us not forget the music for what would religion be without music?
The idea that music, lights, colours and positions are used for communications with aliens, together with hand movements (used in our music schools) and facial expressions is ingenious!
SPACE RELIGION AND HUMANISM
I would not call CE3K pseudo-religion.
It is a genuine religion in the sense that it truly expresses human religiosity: the search for something bigger, something that lasts longer than our short lives, something that gives purpose and meaning to our mundane everyday life and existence. Space certainly is bigger than life and various space oriented religions and cults are surely going to grow in popularity as better understanding of the Universe becomes more common among the public.
Steven Spielberg talks naturally the language of religion perhaps because he is a Jew.
In comparison to the religious tones in CE3K, the space film Avatar (2009) represents the secular humanistic values of its writer and director James Cameron.
(I write more about the secular humanism in Camron's movie Titanic in my blog Phos to alethinon).