Film Discussion

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: What influenced it, and what did it influence?

Kelechi Ehenulo explores some of the key influences on, and projects influenced by, Close Encounters of the Third Kind...

When we think of Steven Spielberg, the usual suspects always come to mind: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park or perhaps Jaws. All of these films tap into our natural sense of adventure, our wish to be scared, and our fascination with wonder.  But if there’s one film that stands out in Spielberg’s repertoire as one of his most mature and thought-provoking analysis of the alien contact experience, then it’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  In 1977 when the world was gripped by George Lucas’ Star Wars, Close Encounters re-shaped and influenced the modern sci-fi landscape.

Just like sci-fi films of old, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still or It Came from Outer Space, what makes Close Encounters stand out is that insightful exploration into a grounded human drama and reality. It involved ordinary people affected by the extraordinary, experiencing three unexplainable situations: the sighting (the first kind), the physical evidence (the second kind) and contact (the third kind). The X-Files certainly embodied aspects of Close Encounters. Jillian (Melinda Dillon) helplessly watching her son’s abduction strikes a painful reminiscence to Fox Mulder when his sister encountered a similar fate.

Episodes like ‘Duane Barry’ and ‘Ascension’ in The X-Files document the clear, psychological obsession with UFOs, be it a progression towards a mental breakdown or an urgent desire to be in a certain mountainous location; it’s an experience which echoes Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) story and the consequential breakup of his family. In the ultimate pursuit of the validating truth as symbolised by Roy and Jillian’s journey, the fear and government misdirection shares a common and endeavouring spirit of Mulder and Scully; a search which has encompassed ten TV seasons (with an upcoming eleventh) and two feature films.

The representation of first contact with aliens has varied over the years since Close Encounters. Most often it’s used as a dark, sinister gateway, or an invading and impersonal force where the experience becomes a haunting tragedy. Films such as Dark Skies, Signs, Fire in the Sky and even The Fourth Kind (a mockumentary depicting various accounts of alien abductions) all feed into that frenzy. Despite the dark undertones, Close Encounters takes an investigative and slightly optimistic approach, unifying a unique co-existence and expansion of our world.

Scientists working together to achieve a singular goal is something Robert Zemeckis’ Contact achieved with its analysis of radio signals and wormholes. It’s the celebration of a naïve openness and innocence which has captured the imagination. Spielberg would later explore that aspect again in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and director Jeff Nichols cites Close Encounters as an influence for his 2016 film Midnight Special.

If there’s a recent film that’s most clearly inspired by Spielberg’s classic, it would have to be Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.  Just like how Spielberg was fascinated by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the works of Arthur C. Clarke, and his passionate belief of UFOs during production, Close Encounters and Arrival beautifully and emotionally articulate a universal communication with a higher form of intelligence that’s beyond our own understanding.

Close Encounters uses lights, colours and sounds like a symphonic orchestra in comparison to Arrival’s circular and symbolic linguistics, put together under extreme pressures and fears and the complete unknown of what happens next. Both also share a biblical outlook with the story of Moses (Close Encounters) and Babylon (Arrival), with characters adopting a spiritual quest of rebirth in obtaining God’s (or in this case, the aliens) message.

As Close Encounters celebrates its 40th Anniversary, it’s almost easy to overlook the film’s presence. Without it the extreme view of alien encounters could have been solely represented as a destructive and hostile spectacle as witnessed in Independence Day and War of the Worlds. Perhaps the genre would have failed to move beyond its B-movie assumptions, failing to take its genre creditability seriously. Close Encounters reverses the typical doomsday conventions and elevates the genre by adopting a personal and intimate approach.

For characters, it becomes a soul-searching exercise; an interconnected journey and internal struggle about humanity’s purpose and its possible evolution. Sci-fi shows like Taken and The 4400 embraced that core ideology instead of the pop culture parody that’s found in the James Bond film Moonraker using the five-note sequence, or Mars Attacks where communication between species started off on the wrong foot with the release of a white dove.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind taught us to watch the skies and imagine the possibilities. In an iconic cinematic moment where young Barry opens the door to a multi-coloured ray of lights, it represents a meaningful and curious look at the phenomenon. It takes a leap of faith in asking questions on what’s beyond the stars and whether we really are alone in the universe.

Are you seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the movies? What do you think of it? Let us know!

1 comment

  1. Ppl want to believe in the supernatural, or aliens from another universe, planet world or whatever. . could it be just possible that we have gotten all the right balances from meteors and things of such to create life, it’s like a 1 million jackpot that we’ve won… is it hard to believe that?? Ppl take photos of ufos very far and distant…i think we can’t accept that we may be alone, it’s what keeps ppl coming with these theories about being not the only ones in this cosmic space. .

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