Close Encounters of the Third Kind opens with a bang. At first the titles flash on and off in eerie silence, then a faint sound slowly swells in volume until it explodes. A symbol of the explosion that created the universe? The producers’ hope that the movie will blow everybody’s mind?
It is too early to know whether young (age thirty) Steven Spielberg, the director who gave us Jaws, has done it again, this time without a bare nipple or a spurt of blood. The film’s dazzling photography, high decibel score, and tolerable acting make it hard to see how bad the film really is, but of course that is the secret of blockbusting. Douglas Trumbull, who created the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, is indeed a genius, and his contributions to Close Encounters are everything the film’s publicity says. Alas, beneath the visual hanky-panky stretches a thin, hackneyed plot that was done to death in the SF magazines and third-rate films of the Fifties.
This is easier to comprehend if you read Spielberg’s written version, Close Encounters, just issued by Dell paperbacks as a movie tie-in. Here on the stark pages, uncontaminated by clanking sounds and flashing colors, you can savor the film’s dull story, cardboard characters, and dreary dialogue in all their pure, clean, adolescent banality. Both novel and movie, however, have one thing going for them that could make the film as whopping a success as Star Wars. More than any other SF novel or movie, they reflect the extent to which ufology has become a pop religion.
Millions of Americans, disenchanted with science and politics, are longing for apocalypse—for a mystical explosion that will instantly solve the world’s problems and start a new age of love. For Protestants who haven’t left, or who are able to return to, evangelical Christianity, expectation of the Second Coming is rapidly rising. Billy Graham more and more thumps on the theme of a hopelessly corrupt world, firmly in Satan’s grip, but any day now—surely soon!—the Lord will return. Eccentric cults based on Parousian nearness are flourishing as seldom before. Shabby books like Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth sell by the millions.
For those who cannot believe in the Second Coming, or the Messianic hopes of orthodox Judaism, there are the UFOs! If the earth is being visited by extraterrestrials, if the sky (as an Indian sadhu puts it in Close Encounters) is singing to us, surely the aliens must be friendly or by now we would have learned otherwise. It is this childish possibility that has kept the flying saucers aloft for thirty years. Thirty years! Exactly the age of Mr. Spielberg.
Strange things have, of course, always been happening in the heavens, but the first flying saucer “flap” had a precise beginning. It was June 24, 1947. Kenneth Arnold, flying his private plane near Mt. Rainier, saw nine dislike objects flipping through the firmament. A wire service man called them “saucers,” flurries of new sightings followed, and ufology arrived to stay.
The press and radio responded quickly to the growing public interest in UFOs and, as always, the sensational books and magazine articles boosted the mania even higher. A few government and military officials at first took the saucers seriously, but after twenty years of investigation the Air Force finally decided that nothing extraordinary was going on overhead. To settle the matter, a distinguished physicist, Edward U. Condon, was handed half a million dollars by the Air Force to produce the definitive “Condon report”—a 1,000-page document that can be summarized in one sentence. There are no UFOs that can’t be explained as hoaxes, hallucinations, or honest misidentifications of such natural objects as meteors, Venus, huge balloons, conventional aircraft, re-entering satellites, and atmospheric illusions.
Of course the Condon report, when it came out in 1968, no more settled the matter than the Warren Commission report settled the question of who killed the president. Indeed, even before the Condon report was published a leading occult journalist, John G. Fuller, blasted it with an article in Look: “The Flying Saucer Fiasco.”
Obviously there is no way that the Air Force or anybody else can prove that alien spacecraft are not visiting us. Is there a tooth fairy? No amount of cases in which a grownup is caught pushing a quarter under a child’s pillow will add up to irrefutable negative evidence. Always there is a small residue of cases in which grownups are not caught, and the morning appearance of money remains mysterious. No matter how many sightings of UFOs are shown to have natural explanations, there is always a residue—how could it be otherwise?—of cases for which information is insufficient for judgment.
The cast of mind of true believers in alien UFOs is remarkably similar to that of true believers in spiritualism when it was in its heyday. It mattered not a spirit rap how many mediums were caught in fraud. Every time this happened, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in the reality of fairies as well as of ghosts, would sigh and point out, as if talking to a child, that some mediums do indeed cheat, but not all of them and not all the time. Always that residue of the unexplained.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, professor of astronomy at Northwestern University, is the Conan Doyle of ufology. He started out as a debunker, but now is firmly persuaded that something paranormal—he doesn’t know just what—is behind the UFO flaps. In his latest book, The Hynek UFO Report, issued by Dell as a companion to Spielberg’s “novel,” he writes:
Today I would not spend one additional moment on the subject of UFOs if I didn’t seriously feel that the UFO phenomenon is real and that efforts to investigate and understand it, and eventually to solve it, could have a profound effect—perhaps even be the springboard to a revolution in man’s view of himself and his place in the universe.
The title of Spielberg’s movie is from Hynek’s 1972 book, The UFO Experience. Close encounters of the first kind are mere sightings. The second are physical interactions. The third are meetings with the aliens. Spielberg, a long-time UFO enthusiast, hired Hynek to be his technical consultant. Sure enough, in the movie’s climactic scene when the great encounter of the third kind occurs, there is Dr. Hynek himself, standing among the observers, puffing contemplatively on a pipe and looking very unsurprised.
The Hynek UFO Report contains nothing of substance that Hynek has not said many times before. Four-fifths of all UFO reports, he cheerfully admits, are easily explained. But that damnable residue! The government is attacked once more for “suppressing” data. The Condon report is again branded a huge fraud whose “cold and clammy” hand was lifted by the last big UFO flap in the fall of 1973 when four planets were exceptionally bright, and there had been a widely publicized claim by two fishermen in Pascagoula, Mississippi, that they had been kidnapped by a flying saucer. UFO debunking books by top scientists and writers are dismissed as flimsy efforts of the “establishment” to sweep truth under the rug. Hynek likens his detractors to those who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope for fear of seeing something that might damage their “belief systems.”
The best insight into Hynek’s own belief system can be gained from an interview published in the June 1976 issue of Fate, a tawdry occult pulp magazine that thirty years ago was the first to publish articles about UFOs as extraterrestrial objects. Hynek once favored the “nuts and bolts” theory that UFOs are physical things, but now, he tells us, he inclines to the view (proposed by Jung) that they are psychic projections. “Perhaps an advanced civilization understands the interaction between mind and matter…. Perhaps it is a naïve notion that you’ve got to build something physical, blast it off with sound and fury to cross vast distances and finally land here…. There are other planes of existence—the astral plane, the etheric plane and so forth.”
“I believe,” he goes on, “the world is in a psychic revolution that most of us are not aware of. And least aware are the Establishment scientists…. The new puzzle pieces are being given to us by the whole parapsychological scene—ESP, telepathy, the Uri Geller phenomena, psychic healing and particularly psychic surgery.”
But now Hynek is troubled by a seeming contradiction. If UFOs are psychic constructs, how come they leave physical traces? “UFOs break tree branches, appear on radar and are photographed. Maybe they’re an example of the Uri Geller-type phenomena in which physical effects occur apparently without physical causes….”
Do the aliens come from beyond Pluto, or from “parallel or interlocking worlds”? Hynek wishes he knew. (The fairies, Conan Doyle believed, live in an interlocking world of “vibrations” different from ours. See his book, The Coming of the Fairies, with its splendid photos of the winged creatures, far more convincing than the blurry, easily faked photos of ufology.)
“I ran across two contactee cases just recently,” Hynek told Fate,
in which the witnesses said they were impelled to do something; they were compelled to sleepwalk, to leave their beds and to go where the spacecraft was waiting. There they saw the creatures. They were without will of their own and suffered very bad effects from the experience—nausea, headaches, etc. The modern psychiatrist might label these persons “disturbed.” Sure they’re disturbed. But why?
Hynek’s remarks outline the central plot of Close Encounters. Roy Neary (“near” the Great Truth?), played by Richard Dreyfuss, who also starred in Jaws, is a power company lineman in Muncie, Indiana—the “Middletown” chosen by the Lynds for their classic sociological study of ordinary Americans. (No doubt the aliens read the book in kindergarten.) When Roy is sent to investigate a mysterious blackout, he has a dramatic encounter of the second kind. Back home, he becomes increasingly haunted by a mountain shape. He sees it first in a glob of shaving cream, and at dinner tries to build it with mashed potatoes while a son’s eyes fill with tears. He thinks poor dad is losing his marbles. A few days later Neary is yanking up shrubs to garnish a large model of a mountain he has constructed in his hobby room. His distraught wife, a prototype of the stubborn UFO skeptic, packs the children in a car and leaves.
As luck would have it, Roy sees on a TV newscast the very mountain he has modeled. It is Devil’s Tower, a steep-sided mesa in Wyoming. There has been, it seems, a derailment, and the area is being evacuated because a nerve gas has contaminated the region. Roy feels compelled to go there.
A young widow, Jillian Guiler, lives not far from Roy with her four-year-old son Barry. When a UFO passes over her roof at night, all the electrical toys and devices in the house turn on and go haywire. (This, by the way, is something new in ufology. It will be interesting to see if similar events are reported in the 1978 UFO flap expected as a consequence of the movie.) Barry, enjoying the poltergeist fun, runs out of the house. Jill finally catches him, but not before the two are almost killed on the highway by Neary, who is chasing a chain of UFOs around a dangerous curve.
A few nights later, when the UFO returns, the force inside Jill’s house is even scarier. She tries to bolt the doors and windows, but the force drags Barry through the dog’s kitchen entrance. This time, for reasons never made clear, the aliens kidnap him. Now Jill is obsessed by the mountain shape. She, too, seeing it on the news, can’t avoid the trek to Wyoming. Near Devil’s Tower, Jill and Roy meet again.
The chemical derailment is only a cover for Project Mayflower. The aliens have made computer contact with an international group of ufologists, headed by a handsome expert acted by the French movie director François Truffaut. Spielberg probably had in mind Jacques Vallee, a French astronomer-occultist who collaborated with Hynek on their 1975 UFO book, The Edge of Reality.
What the Devil is going on? Well, the aliens want a rendezvous on Devil’s Tower. Technicians have blasted out a clearing on the mountain and surrounded it with floodlights, computers, television cameras, portable toilets, and so on. A Moog synthesizer is connected to a big display screen on which each tone lights a differently colored rectangle.
Project personnel try to hustle Roy and Jill out of the area, along with a small group of “nobodies” who also have been inexplicably drawn there, but the pair escape. After strenuous exertions they finally make it to the clearing just in time to hear the loudspeakers boom: “Take your positions please. This is not a drill.”
To prove how friendly they are, the aliens put on a stupendous aerial show. For an opener they form stars in the dark sky that duplicate the Big Dipper. Then their small craft, seemingly made entirely of colored lights, swoop here and there, flying through one another and through the mesa just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
The mother ship, a monstrous wheel of light, slowly settles over the clearing and hangs there like a mammoth Victorian chandelier. Swing low sweet chariot. In the novel it generates a negative gravity field that makes everybody feel 40 percent lighter. The mother ship is Spielberg’s beatific vision, his poor replica of Dante’s vision of the Godhead in the last canto of The Divine Comedy. Some observers actually fall on their knees in awe.
On the Moog synthesizer a musician plays a corny five-note theme that the aliens have taught the earthlings as a kind of password. The mother ship breaks into deep organ tones. A computer gets into the act, and there is an idiotic jam session that Spielberg describes as “very strange music—at one moment melodic and the next atonal, sometimes jazzy, then a little country western….”
Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, calls this “one of the peerless moments in movie history—spiritually reassuring, magical, and funny at the same time.” Apparently Ms. Kael sat bug-eyed through the film, finding it an innocent fantasy of such “immense charm” that she could only liken it to The Wizard of Oz. “It’s trying to teach us something,” says a technician during the film’s peerless moment. “It’s the first day of school, fellas!”
Like Dante’s, Roy’s desire and will are now rolling with the divine wheel of cosmic love. His wife and children? Who cares. Truffaut, sensing Roy’s desire, recruits him on the spot to join a team of a dozen astronauts (the twelve disciples?) who are waiting in helmets and red jumpsuits to go aboard.
The ship disgorges a group of dazed US Navy men. Surprise! They are the crew of the famous lost patrol of Flight 19, a squadron of five Avenger torpedo bombers that vanished into the Bermuda Triangle in 1945.
Someone says: “Lieutenant, welcome home. This way to debriefing.” It would be hard to top that in bathos, but Spielberg does it. “They haven’t even aged!” a civilian shouts. “Einstein was right!” To which a team leader responds: “Einstein was probably one of them.”
And now, toddling out of mother ship, still enjoying the fun and games, is little Barry. Jill rushes forward, accompanied by handclaps in the theater.
Tall creatures start to emerge. They are hard to see, silhouetted against a blinding white light, but we can make out enormous heads, long necks, and pipe-stem arms and legs of great flexibility. They are followed by their children—twittering, lovable little things who rush around touching everybody, “feeling human groins, human faces, human backsides.” It’s a group grope at Esalen. “If the human didn’t like it, they moved on to someone who did…an orgy of touching, palpating, feeling, stroking.”
The thirteen red-clad astronauts (for Roy is now among them) march solemnly into mother ship. Presumably they will be brought back later, from wherever they are going, stuffed with transcendent wisdom. The Age of Aquarius has dawned. Jill watches through happy tears, snapping photos with her Instamatic, and too freaked out to guess that when Roy returns she’ll be an old lady and he’ll still be thirty-two.
At last—a close-up of an alien. It has a big balloon of a face, with enormous Kewpie-doll eyes. Responding to Truffaut’s noble, transfigured countenance, the face manages a feeble, crooked smile before he, she, or it returns to mother ship. The picture ends, not with a bang but a simper.
Before the brave astronauts go aboard there is a crude church service during which a priest intones: “God has given you his angels’ charge over you.” Could it be that these friendly humanoids are the angels of the Bible? Billy Graham and Father Andrew Greeley won’t buy it, but millions of Laodicean Protestants will have no trouble stashing the notion into their brains alongside demons and other moldering vestiges of Christian mythology.
It is this pretentious, quasi-religious, Nirvana-like finale that may well keep Spielberg’s ridiculous script from sending Columbia Pictures stock into a tailspin. Or maybe not. Maybe enough ordinary souls out there, even in Muncie, are capable of smelling the spiritual fakery of it all. For it is not God who comes to rescue humanity. It is just another race of humanoids.
“It turns me on,” Spielberg told Newsweek, “to think that when we die we don’t go to heaven but to space, to Alpha Centauri, and there we’re given a laser blaster and an air-cushion car.” Does this not say it all? Gee Whiz, fellas! Jesus (a superhumanoid from another galaxy?) once prayed (Luke 10:21): “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” This is why the aliens are so interested in Barry and simple nobodies like Neary. This is why the wise scientists won’t look through Hynek’s psychic telescope.
In the original film version of Close Encounters a song from Roy’s childhood floats into his head just before he boards the celestial chariot. You won’t believe it, but the song is from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, and its stanzas still grace the last pages of the novel.
When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are,
Anything your heart desires will come…to…you.
As Roy, eyes shining, tramps like a Cub Scout into the Great Mystery, another stanza jogs through his mind:
Like a bolt out of the blue,
Fate steps in and sees you through.
When you wish upon a star your dream…comes…true.
After this scene provoked derisive snorts at a Texas preview, Spielberg had enough sense to recognize that its effect was about the same as having Roy burst into the lyrics of “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” I’ll bet a dime that even Dr. Hynek was happy to see Pinocchio go.
What remains is not much better. It is fashionable now to describe Spielberg as a terribly gifted but innocent prodigy, bug-eyed with wonder and lost in the Ozzy worlds of modern technology and the silver screen. It will be interesting, concluded Newsweek, to watch him grow up. Yes. And the more he grows the less likely he’ll make another blockbuster.
January 26, 1978