Even at the tender and relatively uninformed age of 8, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was when I realized Steven Spielberg had “it”. Having seen Jaws mostly through the gaps between my hands over my eyes, I wouldn’t feel the full impact of that film until years later. But I remember sitting there watching the alien mothership ascend until it was this tiny dot of light, a dazzling exclamation point on what had come before. I couldn’t quite process what I’d just seen, or how it was making me feel. I knew it wasn’t the giddy joy I’d experienced a few months earlier with Star Wars; it was something deeper, something more real. The only response I could muster was to cry at a movie for the first time without fear being the motivator. I could find no other way to react. Then I rubbed my eyes and looked around and hoped no one had seen me and proceeded to talk about how cool the spaceships looked. I wasn’t quite ready to be that in touch with my emotions.
When it all comes down to it, Close Encounters isn’t so much a film about aliens in outer space as it is about alienation here on Earth. In UFO lore, a close encounter of the third kind is actual contact with an alien species. But Spielberg’s also looking at the idea of contact with our own species. One of the recurring motifs in the film is groups of strangers who would have never normally gotten together: a group on the roadside that Roy drags his family to, hoping for another glimpse of the UFOs; a group who gathers to hear the military attempt to explain away what they’ve seen; the huge mass of people being evacuated from the Devil’s Tower area; the smaller group in the helicopter who actually manage to make it all the way to the mysterious location that’s been haunting their visions; the wide variety of people returned to Earth by the aliens. Even the team leading the search for the extraterrestrials is a diverse, international group. All of these gatherings don’t happen without the possibility (or reality, in some cases) of the aliens’ presence. While the goal of the aliens’ message appears to be that of guiding us to contact with them, they also want us to make contact with ourselves, with other people and in other ways than we would have ever thought of connecting. For all the wonder and hope there is in the prospect of meeting someone from out there, there’s just as much wonder and hope in the close encounters waiting for us right down here.
Spielberg also presents an interesting dichotomy in the two main characters, Roy and Jillian. While at the their core their motivations are based on the same obsession with reaching the landing site, Jillian is doing so in the hope of reforming her family, while Roy is essentially running away from his. We’re not given much of a look into Jillian’s life outside the fact that she’s a single mother, so it’s easy to assume just what her son means to her. And given the traumatic way in which Barry disappears — brilliantly contrasting Jillian’s terror with Barry’s seeming delight — it’s pretty believable that she would go to the lengths she does to find him again, especially once she makes the connection between the mountain in her head and Devil’s Tower. Here’s someone for whom the possibility of meeting intelligent life from outer space pales next to the possibility of seeing her child again.
Some people try to paint Roy as unsympathetic because of the fact that he abandons his family to pursue the aliens, and it’s easy to make that interpretation. But in a lot of ways, his family has long since abandoned him. Even before his encounter, you can see the disconnect: the kids don’t want to see Pinocchio, his wife barely tolerates his model train hobby, and it seems like he’s lost in the shuffle in his own home. And then when he needs them to believe him the most, when he’s questioning his own sanity after his close encounter, they’re simply not there for him. Even before he takes the extreme step of shoveling half his garden into the living room, the distance is growing. And because we’ve been privy to what Roy’s seen, something that on a cosmic scale trumps mundane family life, we understand that his worldview has changed. His reality has expanded, and while he desperately wants his family to be part of this new perception, he can’t let them hold him back from it. So when Ronnie finally packs up the kids and leaves, it’s not that Roy is a bad husband for putting them through this. He’s a man dealing with the impossible in the only way he knows how, without the support of anyone he loves.
And so the connection between him and Jillian. She understands. She knows what he’s going through. Spielberg thankfully keeps their relationship from becoming romantic, but you can feel the elation in Roy to be around someone who finally believes him. When they finally part, it’s a definitive statement about their two characters: Roy, eager to get a closer look at the UFOs descending on the landing site, says, “We can’t stay here,” while Jillian says, “I can,” because her son isn’t with her. And they share one final moment of understanding, and Roy finally receives the validation of his desires he hasn’t had the entire film. The fairly chaste kiss they share plays not only as a farewell, but as a sort of affirmation of the faith they had both in their beliefs and in each other. Despite the hundreds of scientists and military personnel on hand who did their best to keep this a secret, it seems like this entire moment was for the benefit of these two ordinary people. After all, it’s not the group of specially trained and selected subjects the aliens embrace; it’s Roy.
There’s a great moment in the finale where Lacombe’s group manages to get the three hovering UFOs to play back the five-note sequence, and everyone thinks that’s that. They start congratulating each other, calling it a night, with no idea that a much larger and more significant encounter is in store for them. It’s as if the aliens are saying anything is possible once you simply start talking to each other. And as the mothership departs and we get those classic Spielberg shots moving of awed faces set to swelling John Wiliams’ music, what we feel isn’t hope that there’s something better out there among the stars, but hope that humanity might one day deserve to have it stop by for a visit.