A 1977 Film That Should Concern You
Over this last week, I sat down and watched Steven Spielberg's classic and highly acclaimed film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, starring Richard Dreyfuss. This was the first time I had seen it. It's currently on Netflix until 2/1/19.
In short, the film intrigued, impressed, and disturbed me. Please note this reflection contains spoilers.
>> A FILM TO BE COPIED
While the story was a slow-burn, Spielberg offered his usual dose of suspense mixed in with some genuinely terrifying moments. I see now how significantly M. Night Shyamalan drew from Close Encounters when making Signs. I think this film, one of Shyamalan's earlier works starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Pheonix, is superior to Close Encounters, at least when it comes to the worldview it communicates.
[A fun note: here are scenes from both movies in which the aliens are desperately trying get to the humans through basement vents. Terrifying!]
While Spielberg is a master storyteller, and he has no doubt packed Close Encounters with stunning visuals and honest portrayals of human characters, the film left me disturbed (the word I keep returning to).
>> AN ALMOST CAUTIONARY TALE
Richard Dreyfuss brilliantly portrays Roy Neary, an electric lineman and family man who encounters an alien ship while driving to fix a power outage. This experience marks him with an insatiable desire to discover the source of this powerful meeting. Like a snowball, this ambition quickly turns into obsession leading him to ultimately abandon all things once valuable to him, including his job, wife, and children.
There is a haunting scene in which Roy can't get an image out of his mind--a strange mound. He sees it everywhere around him, even in newspapers and mashed potatoes. Everything, however, seems to "clarify" when he decides to build what he sees inside of his head inside of his living room. At this point, his wife has left with his children. Surprise? No.
Caked in mud, Roy sees that the image in his head is a real place in Wyoming. So, he drives to the state and finds that the government is evacuating all the civilians in the area near the mysterious mountain. Roy reconnects with another woman who had also encountered the UFO and had the same "image" implanted in her. Together, they escape the authorities and scale the mountain.
On the other side of the mountain, the government has built a landing pad to both communicate with and welcome the alien life forms.
Through a series of scenes, we find that the aliens are friendly. They "return" men who had served in the armed forces and had at one time mysteriously disappeared. As they exit the UFO, they seem untarnished, not a day older then when they left.
The movie reaches the high point when the aliens exit the UFO and welcome humans to join them. The government had already prepared a series of individuals (dressed in red) to enter the UFO.
>> A JOURNEY HOME?
In the one religious scene, a priest and government official stand side-by-side (a duo we could talk more about) as they request God's blessing on this venture. The priest leads the individuals in the following recitation:
"May the Lord be praised at all times.
May God help us and grant us a happy journey.
Show us your ways.
And lead us along your paths.
God has given you his angels charge over you."
Juxtaposed to the real, tangible alien ship right outside of their building, this Christian religious service feels terribly hollow, dead, superstitious...and the "god" they were trying to reach out to is a relic of the past.
When individuals in red line up to enter the UFO, Roy feels this deep pull to join them, and he does. His obsession has finally led him to this moment. Any caution Spielberg was trying to give us about the dangers of misplaced ambition (leading to the abandonment of wife, family, responsibility) is gone, for Roy's journey "home" is rewarded with existential meaning and fulfillment.
[SIDE NOTE: A far more satisfying tale of obsession is found, believe it or not, in the horror film Zodiac. This story about men trying to track down a serial killer is violent and scary (and not for everyone), but more satisfying because it's a true cautionary tale that jolted me into remembering that our lives are like vapors--here one moment and gone another (James 4).]
>> WHEN A GOOD FILM IS A BAD ONE
Rotten Tomatoes offers a critics consensus in this way:
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is deeply humane sci-fi exploring male obsession, cosmic mysticism, and music.
This summary nicely articulates much of what's going on in this film, revealing (a) how desperately man is looking for meaning and significance in our fallen world and (b) what happens when these things are looked for in the supernatural, but a supernatural force that is most certainly not God.
This film unsettles me, because the resolution to Roy's longing for meaning, or his salvific moment, is in the hands of alien creatures--an anti-Christian cosmic mysticism.
This is a happy ending, which in reality is a terrifying ending.
Man, lost and separated from his Maker, will look anywhere, high or low, to find how to fill the ache for something eternal that God has placed within him (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Happy endings which provide false solutions like this are the most sinister Trojan Horses of all.
>> WHAT NEXT?
If you enjoy supernatural thrillers, skim through Close Encounters of the Third Kind and save your precious time to go watch (or re-watch) M. Night Shyamalan's far more moving and thought-provoking film, Signs.
P.S. If you'd like some guidance on how to watch a movie as a Christian, I wrote an e-booklet for you. I named it "Engaging the Trojan Horse: Watching Movies with a Christian Perspective." Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll send it to you for free.
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and cast chaplain at LifeHouse Theater in Redlands, CA.