The Third Coming

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

directed and written by Steven Spielberg, produced by Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips. Released by Columbia Pictures

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

by Steven Spielberg
Dell, 256 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The Hynek UFO Report

by Dr. J. Allen Hynek
Dell, 299 pp., $1.95 (paper)

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…

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