This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this installment, we explore the dark side of optimism in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Science fiction has a history of mirroring society’s fears. The alien invasion films released in Hollywood during the 1950s were often commentaries of Cold War paranoia, with the aliens serving as metaphors for Communist invaders. In 2005, Steven Spielberg explored similar ideas in his version of War of the Worlds, a movie which explores the cultural fears of a post-9/11 America. The young Spielberg was more optimistic, however, and he used alien visitors to tell a more complex tale.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind scrapped the notion of the Other being dangerous to our earthly way of life. While some scenes featuring the extra-terrestrials are mysterious and terrifying, the film’s underlying message is one of unity and optimism. Instead of fearing forces we do not understand, we should seek to communicate with them and find some common ground. All in all, it’s a story about embracing a world of new possibilities. Regardless of Spielberg’s optimistic message, though, Close Encounters is still occasionally a grim experience, due in no part to the film’s terrifying use of light and emotionally textured cinematography.
The movie, released towards the end of 1977, is evidently the product of an imaginative filmmaker who was young and open-minded. Back then, Spielberg was a UFO enthusiast whose fascination with the universe began when he was six years old after he witnessed a meteor shower. He has said on numerous occasions that the film is told from a child’s perspective, which is why it’s easy to sympathize with the movie’s protagonist, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss).
In the film, Roy’s obsession with the invaders ultimately costs him his marriage and family. After making contact with the outsiders, he essentially regresses and becomes a child again, much to the detriment of those closest to him. The film ends with him embarking on a grand adventure into space to find commonality with humanity’s alien counterparts. His destiny is bigger than his family. At the same time, his arc can also be interpreted as a man having a breakdown and becoming an absentee father. For all the film’s positive utopian themes, the characters’ willingness to recklessly abandon his responsibilities is quite chilling.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography (which won him an Oscar) adds some emotional complexity to the mix. Spielberg’s message about accepting the unknown might be positive, but Zsigmond’s use of light often makes the aliens feel like a powerful, dangerous force. Furthermore, some of his frames do a great job of capturing Roy’s detachment from his family, and they make for some unpleasant viewing.
When Roy is first contacted by the aliens, lights shine down on his car as if he’s been summoned by God for a higher purpose that doesn’t involve a blue-collar job and family life. It’s one of the film’s many scenes using light to great effect and drives home the idea that what’s going on is bigger than humankind.
That said, during the scenes where we see Roy’s home life, we witness a man on the brink. The scene where he breaks down in front of his son is heartbreaking, and his obsession with finding Devil’s Tower makes him look like a conspiracy nut. He’s such a tragic figure that his departure is a feel-good ending because he’s finally found some peace of mind. But his family has still suffered as a result of his quest.
Elsewhere, in what is arguably the film’s most iconic moment, we see the aliens appear at a house and abduct a kid. The scene itself is like something out of a horror movie, as the house shakes and becomes engulfed in a fiery light. Naturally, the child’s parent is terrified of the unknown invaders. The child, on the other hand, isn’t scared of the menacing orange and red hues at all. He literally opens the door to the light so he can explore a world of curiosity. Like Roy, though, the child doesn’t pay much attention to the ramifications his reckless actions have on his family. He represents Spielberg’s idea of blind optimism when faced with the unknown, but the scene still feels rife with danger.
According to Spielberg, the scene is supposed to be optimistic as it represents the heavenly notion of walking into the light, of blindly entering the unknown in the pursuit of greater knowledge. However, Zsigmond brings Spielberg’s vision to life in a way that’s thematically inspiring and visually terrifying. These contrasting notions of the disturbing and the optimistic sum up the movie in a nutshell.
The brilliance of Close Encounters is the way it subverts the scary tropes of alien invasion movies to tell a story about overcoming fear and achieving great things. The only way to find progress is to make compromises, and we can’t co-exist with others if we don’t learn about them. The movie contains some great values about acceptance, but it doesn’t shy away from giving us terrifying thrills and some complex food for thought to chew on, either. In the end, the blind optimism of Roy and the kid paid off, but the movie is an emotional roller coaster all the same.