Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction landmark, first hit theaters 40 years ago this November. To celebrate, the movie is having a revival run around the country. It seems fitting that this is taking place just a couple of weeks after we were all gazing up at the heavens in expectation of the solar eclipse. Close Encounters, like so many Spielberg films, centers on characters who spend a good deal of time looking upward. What is it, exactly, that they are seeking?
A recent New York Times headline declared that “Close Encounters Was When the Movies Got New-Age Religion.” For Christians, this might make the film sound dangerously lukewarm—a stepping away from the specificity of the Gospel in favor of a vague sort of spirituality. But couldn’t the movie, in which a harried father (Richard Dreyfuss) has his own Damascus roadencounter with aliens and becomes obsessed with learning more about them, also be seen as a step forward, a dawning awareness of the divine?
That’s how I wrote about Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings. The third chapter, devoted to movies as prayers of yearning, considers a number of sci-fi titles, including Spielberg’s classic. After reflecting on the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact, The Fountain, and Interstellar, I turn to Close Encounters and its central seeker, Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary:
Roy’s brush with the intergalactic takes place somewhere fairly mundane: Indiana. Responding to a power outage one night, he stops his truck near a railroad crossing to consult a map. The silent night is interrupted when, just outside his window, a row of mailboxes begins to move, seemingly of its own accord. The truck’s power cuts out, silencing the radio and leaving Roy in darkness. Suddenly a glare of light beams down from above. Gravity is altered, as items fly about in his cab; the radio audio returns, but scrambled into nonsense. And the railroad crossing sign rattles back and forth maniacally, matching the panicked beat of Roy’s heart. Then things calm, the sounds quiet and Spielberg’s camera moves in on Roy’s face—the face of a man who has looked into oblivion and lived.
This is, indeed, Roy’s conversion experience—only he isn’t quite sure yet what it is he’s supposed to believe. And so he goes on a yearning journey, guided by his UFO encounter and a recurring vision he has of a strange, flat-topped mountain. Roy is nothing if not an impassioned seeker—akin to the psalmist whose “soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord”—to the point that he begins making sculptures of the mountain with mashed potatoes at dinnertime, offering them as some sort of prayerful gesture. There is comedy but also tragedy here, as Roy’s obsession becomes so all-encompassing that he’s eventually willing to leave his young family behind in pursuit of what he does not yet fully understand.
You can read Close Encounters’ climax—a bravura light show in which Roy climbs that mountain and reconnects with the aliens in an ecstatic manner—in a variety of ways. It is, to be sure, a moment of familial abandonment (Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was a teenager, and broken families are a common theme in his films). Yet it is also one of religious devotion, perhaps something like James and John leaving their father behind to follow Jesus. More than anything else, though, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is our everyday yearning writ large, a story of one man’s single-minded attempt to reach out to the mysterious presence that has called his name. To pray.