[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 11 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Transformation Through Film.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
“Don’t you think I’m taking this really well?” Roy Neary’s wife, Ronnie, asks her husband early on in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At this point, Roy has just experienced his first transformative encounter with alien visitors and has woken his family to search for UFOs. Looking off-screen, Ronnie continues: “I remember when we used to come to places like this just to look at each other…snuggle.” But as thunder rumbles ominously in the background, Roy’s eyes dart around in the complete opposite direction, and even as his wife begins to affectionately kiss him, he maintains his vision upward, to the heavens, as a desire he has always possessed is now revealed in full force. For Roy, everything has changed.Roy Neary, among the most childish of science fiction’s hero figures, wished upon a star, and a most wondrous dream became reality.
This scene is one of many small but significant moments that help establish Roy’s character as a man on a journey eerily similar to one of religious faith. Already, we see that Roy has set his mind on things above and that director Steven Spielberg has tapped into a deep reservoir of human experience: religious revelation. Spiritual and philosophical science fiction narratives have seen a comeback in the past year, with the release of Interstellar drawing attention backward to 2001: A Space Odyssey and pushing anticipation forward for Ridley Scott’s The Martian. There could hardly be a better time to return to Spielberg’s own significant contribution to this subgenre, which helps us further appreciate such works past and present. For Christians in particular, revisiting the mystique of Spielberg’s masterpiece reveals the foundational nature of religious themes throughout Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and looking back at this classic film reminds modern viewers of both the transformative power of faith inspired by revelation and the power of a cinematic medium that operates in a similar revelatory fashion.
Spielberg invokes the spiritual immediately in Close Encounters, framing the entire narrative within divine creation and revelation. “The film opens with a transformational moment which suggests both the Biblical instant of creation and the birth trauma,” observes Andrew M. Gordon, “Spielberg as director plays God, opening his movie by announcing ‘Let there be light!’ ” It is easy to draw the connection here from the opening lines of the Hebrew Scriptures, which describe the earth as “formless and empty, darkness cover[ing] the surface of the watery depths…then God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” In Spielberg’s act of creation, the screen is blanketed in darkness. Dissonant, formless music builds to a crescendo and a sudden explosion of sound before the audience is bathed in the bright light of the Sonoran Desert. Removing all doubt regarding Spielberg’s intention, the introduction’s cue title on the film’s soundtrack album is “Opening: Let There Be Light,” making the creation allusion explicit. Going further, one would be foolish to ignore the subtler connection in this dissonance and darkness to the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spielberg, through this double-edged allusion, firmly establishes that he is providing a story both of spiritual and evolutionary significance for the entire human race.
An integral part of Roy’s character is a seemingly innate desire for the mystical, supernatural, and imaginative. From the very beginning of his story, Roy is established as a child-like character. A massive train set is planted in the center of his family home, and he bickers with both his children and wife in turn. Superficially, this family squabble is meant to foreshadow the eventual disintegration of the Neary family unit, grounding this dissolution in frustration and conflict between the family members. In a far subtler manner, however, Spielberg lays the groundwork for Roy’s spiritual and supernatural desires. Obviously, an elaborate train set (implied to be primarily Roy’s, not his children’s) is a nostalgically imaginative endeavor for an adult, and Roy’s film choices are notable as well. When Ronnie inquires about a promised cinematic outing, Roy offers Pinocchio as his preferred choice, a story filled with “a lot of furry animals and magic.” He is voted down by his children, but this motif of magic is picked up by the musical score, which offers variations on the “When You Wish upon a Star” theme from Pinocchio throughout the rest of the film.
Moments after this conversation is concluded, it is also revealed that Roy has granted his children permission to watch The Ten Commandments. The television is turned on, and Roy and his children briefly pause to watch the parting of the Red Sea. The significance of this inclusion cannot be overstated. The story of Exodus, explored in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic epic, is a story of God revealing Himself to one man, Moses, and from there to entire people groups. Spielberg’s invoking of a story of religious revelation so early in the film, and in the first moments the audience has with the main character, helps set the spiritual tone, cluing in the audience to the fact that the bizarre happenings of the film ought to be viewed through a lens of the miraculous. Roy desires the miraculous—and more specifically, the miraculous of a spiritual nature.
This becomes all the more evident in Roy’s first encounter with the alien visitors. Roy is driving on a road by himself, attempting to resolve a massive power outage, when he is shaken and suddenly illuminated and blinded by a bright light. The laws of gravity are temporarily suspended (a thematic line could possibly be drawn from the distortion of gravity here to the gravitational anomalies in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar), and afterward Roy is left with a physical mark of the visit, a sunburn. This entire sequence is eerily similar to the Apostle Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus in the Christian Scriptures, and this likeness holds over from earlier drafts of the script, which emphasized the Pauline element even more so than the final film. Paul Schrader, the writer who helped Spielberg flesh out his ideas before production, has said “the only thing I deserve a credit for is changing Steve’s mind about doing the film as a UFO Watergate. I thought it ought to be about a spiritual encounter.” He goes on to describe how his early rejected draft “centered on the idea of a modern-day St. Paul…[who] one day…has his road to Damascus—he has an encounter.”
While Spielberg’s final working of the script cut out much of Schrader’s contribution, it did cling to the Mountain as a place of ultimate revelation, and the structure of the Pauline conversion sequence is clearly evident. When looking to the account of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts, we can see stunning similarities:
As [Paul] traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” he said. “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied. “But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the sound but seeing no one. Then Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.
Like in Acts, Roy is striving to reach a place to complete his work. Like Paul, Roy has a bright light flash around him. Though Roy does not audibly hear the aliens speak to him, the film bears out the fact that knowledge has been imparted to Roy, as it was imparted to Paul, which will change the trajectory of his life. Finally, like Paul’s blindness, Roy has a temporary physical mark of his experience: the sunburn. This also connects back to The Ten Commandments and the Exodus account, which both describe that Moses’ face was transformed by the experience of seeing God. With the experience of alien visitors tied to spiritual revelation in this manner, it becomes necessary to view Roy’s journey from this point on as a religious one.
Over the course of the film, these revelations give birth to a path of faith leading to the final ultimate revelation at the conclusion. Here we find Søren Kierkegaard’s exploration of the “knight of faith” in Fear and Trembling particularly helpful in understanding Roy’s journey as a spiritual one. Though it is doubtful Spielberg intentionally incorporated Kierkegaard into Roy’s narrative arc, the Danish philosopher is immensely helpful for unpacking the many ways in which Roy’s development is religious and faith-based in nature.
In Kierkegaard’s exploration of faith, he wrestles with how a knight of faith, in his instance Abraham, could do things that appear to be against his duty to love his neighbor (sacrificing Isaac) for the sake of his absolute duty to God. He asserts that this duty manifests itself in a paradoxical manner, in that “love of God can cause the knight of faith to give his love of his neighbor the opposite expression to that which is his duty ethically speaking.” Kierkegaard brings in Scripture to help frame his discussion, saying:
As everyone knows, Luke 14.26 presents a remarkable teaching on the absolute duty to God: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” This is a hard saying, who can bear to hear it? And for that reason is heard very seldom.
One of the most frequent criticisms leveled against Close Encounters revolves around the film’s supposed romanticizing of Roy’s disintegration of his own family for the sake of his alien call. While such a reaction is understandable in a literal reading of the film, it does poor service to the rich spiritual foundation underpinning the story. Kierkegaard’s definition of the knight of faith reveals that, metaphorically speaking, Roy is not neglecting his family, but rather, submitting himself to a higher absolute duty. The aliens have called to Roy, and like Paul on the road to Damascus and Abraham listening to the commands of God, Roy must heed their call on his life, even at the cost of losing his family. This is an obviously painful experience for Roy, evidenced by the tragically poignant dinner scene as he struggles with the implications of his new life’s vision, but gradually his resolve strengthens, culminating in the seemingly craze-induced construction of a massive model of Devil’s Tower inside his home.
Roy, however, who has experienced revelation and possesses an innate knowledge, a pull and desire toward a physical location, knows that his actions are not insane. Rather, they make perfect sense according to his own experience, but his inner torment is real, as he laments at the dinner table to a distraught wife and children, “I can’t describe it, what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. This means something. It’s important.” Kierkegaard identifies Roy’s experience with remarkable precision as evidence of a knight of faith. “Humanly speaking he is insane and cannot make himself understood to anyone. And yet ‘insane’ is the mildest expression for him. If he isn’t viewed thus he is a hypocrite.” Kierkegaard even reflects that “surely Abraham must have now and then wished that the task was to love Isaac in a way meet and fitting for a father.” Again, the knight of faith, in this case Abraham, is echoed in Roy’s clear wish to be a good father for his children. But Roy is called to a task that increasingly comes at odds with the cohesion of his family. He attempts to reassure his children that “it’s okay though. I’m still Dad.” But as time goes on, it becomes more and more evident to Roy that he is to walk his path of faith “in cosmic isolation.”
In order to fully grasp the significance of Spielberg’s thrilling and sensational conclusion to Close Encounters at the foot of Devil’s Tower, one must look to how the film frames this encounter, as well as consider how it acts as the proper end of the spiritual journey, and here we find music playing a key, but subtle, role. Often lost in audience enthusiasm for the famed five-note alien motif is Williams’s profound utilization of a motif not composed by himself, but rather one that has a rich musical and theological history: Dies Irae.
Williams’s entire score is filled with motivic allusions to the Dies Irae thematic construction, “which in various orchestrational guises recurs throughout the film, [and] is based on the first four notes of the medieval chant.” Dies Irae literally translates to “Day of Wrath” and the original Latin hymn deals thematically with Judgement Day. Robin Gregory, in his analysis of the history of the motif, notes that the most prominent reason to include the motif is to recall “the words of the sequence…and hence to induce the mood of the scene on that day of wrath, when ‘the world shall dissolve in ashes, and the trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound through the Tombs of all lands, shall drive all unto the Throne.’ ” It is no coincidence then that Dies Irae makes one of its most prominent appearances as Roy races to the foot of Devil’s Tower, where the ultimate close encounter with the alien visitors will occur.
Spielberg then, has framed the beginning of Close Encounters in terms of Creation, and the final sequence in terms of Apocalypse. The appearance of the Mothership atop a mountain, at whose base various seekers have clustered, contains eerie enough similarities to the people of Israel gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai without the second coming being explicitly invoked. But considering the invocation, the descent of the Mothership and its oddly metropolis-like design revealed in the end credits now could be likened to “the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven.” The return of young Barry and others mysteriously taken by the aliens can be interpreted as a resurrection of the dead, and the making of music with the Mothership the ultimate act of interacting with the divine, breaking down the barrier between the earthly and the spiritual.
But most important to this Judgement Day sequence, this reimagining of the coming of God to Earth, is the conclusion of Roy’s journey as the knight of faith. On Judgement Day, man will be judged, and it is Roy whose faith is rewarded. He has relentlessly pursued the alien visitors and their call, and he is chosen from a group of many other hopefuls to join the Mothership as it once again departs from Earth. Roy has sacrificed everything for his absolute duty to the divine and will thus depart from this world with the ultimate and transcendent beings that called him. But this departure only follows a sustained sequence of unity, healing, and restoration. Both men of science and the common man are united together with a benevolent alien race portrayed in the narratively spiritual terms.
Ray Bradbury, the revered author of such science fiction classics as Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, wrote upon the release of Close Encounters that Spielberg’s UFO film is “the most important film of our time.…For this is a religious film, in all the great good senses, the right senses, of that much battered word…for the first time someone has treated all of us as if we really did belong to one race.” Bradbury’s observation is a profound one, and all the more relevant in our cynical modern age. Spielberg himself suggested that “UFOs are a seductive alternative for a lot of people who no longer have faith in anything.” In a world marred by sin, where humanity is divided along lines racial, national, political, and religious, Roy’s spiritual journey reminds us of the transformative power of true faith. Roy’s journey is one of desire and longing for a better world, a more perfect existence, one that is only fully realized at the communion with the Mothership at the foot of the mountain, which features men, women, children, and aliens of all races, tribes, and creeds. It is an encounter that, oddly enough, echoes the nature of film-going and holds out hope that film, in inviting us to participate in its own narrative journeys, can help transform us, leading us to pursue that which is both beautiful and unifying.
It is interesting to note that Close Encounters presents an inverted ending to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Kubrick’s own religious science fiction narrative, the Star Child returns to Earth to remake it and the human race in the form of Dave’s Nieztschean feat of strength. But Roy, the failed father, the child-like man who had the truth revealed to him by a quasi-divine being, will leave Earth with his extraterrestrial guides to travel amongst the stars. When Jesus rebuked His disciples for preventing young children from approaching Him, He assured them that “whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Roy, among the most childish of science fiction’s hero figures, wished upon a star, and a most wondrous dream became reality. For Roy Neary, the unlikely knight of faith, all things have been made new.
- Andrew M. Gordon, Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield, 2008), 61.
- Genesis 1:2–3, (all Scripture references from the Holman Christian Standard Bible).
- John Williams, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Collector’s Edition Soundtrack, composed and conducted by John Williams (Arista: 1998), compact disc.
- Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 2nd edition, 267.
- Acts 9:3–8
- Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (New York: Penguin, 2003), 98.
- Ibid, 100.
- Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 103.
- Ibid, 104.
- Ibid, 107.
- Tom Schneller, “Sweet Fulfillment: Allusion and Teleological Genesis in John Williams’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” The Musical Quarterly 97, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 104. Accessed March 19, 2015, http://mq.oxfordjournals.org/content/97/1/98.full.
- Robin Gregory, “Dies Irae.” Music & Letters 34, no. 2 (Apr. 1953): 135. Accessed April 16, 2015, JSTOR.
- Revelation 21:2
- McBride, Steven Spielberg, 289–290.
- Ibid, 264.
- Mark 10:15