Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in 1977, and was a blockbuster success for Steven Spielberg. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the plot.
A team of investigators find, intact in the Gobi Desert, a flight of Navy planes which disappeared in the 1940’s, and interview a witness to the re-appearance of the planes. This team will re-surface throughout the film, making similar startling discoveries, and conducting similar interviews. They provide an underpinning of respectable reality for the events we are about to witness.
Three year old Barry Guiler is woken when his electrical and electronic toys turn themselves on in the middle of the night. He wanders outside, and his mother Jillian has to go out to find him. Not far away, Roy Neary, a linesman investigating power outages, has a similarly electrical close encounter when his car stalls at a railway crossing.
The effect on Roy Neary’s life of his first encounter is profound. He becomes obsessed with the image of a mountain, and this obsession intrudes into his everyday life in ways he cannot control. While eating dinner with his family, he begins to play with his mashed potato; at first in the desultory way of children with no interest in their food, then with a growing fascination, as he begins to shape the mash into the form of the image that haunts him. As his attention disappears into the task of re-creating this shape, his family exchange anxious glances around the table. His wife packs up the kids and leaves, but Roy hardly notices. He is soon in the yard of his suburban home—with a hose, a shovel, chicken wire and piles of dirt—creating a larger model of his mountain. It is, of course, the mountain where the space-ship will land, but Roy does not even know that such a mountain exists, until he sees a news item about a chemical spill. There on the TV screen is his mountain. He sets out on his pilgrimage.
In his semi-rural home, young Barry, who seems also to have been deeply affected by his earlier encounter, is drawn out of his home by another appearance of strange lights in the night. This time he disappears. Gillian begins a pilgrimage of her own. The dramatic climax of the movie unites Roy, Gillian, Barry, the investigators, the missing pilots and the musical aliens, before Roy goes off with the space-ship.
This movie was a dramaturgical tour-de-force, carrying audiences into the little world it created over a couple of hours. Disbelief was enthusiastically suspended. Spielberg was able to build on the widespread interest in conspiracy theories about space visitors. He was able to employ the full force of the developing industrial light and magic that has become more and more central to movie-making ever since. Those are not enough, on their own, to grip an audience. The story must create and maintain plausibility. You may question whether any story about an alien space-ship making contact with earthlings can be called plausible. Nonetheless, without plausibility, any drama will collapse. Exactly how any fictional work creates this environment has been a discussed for millennia, but a critical common component for narrative works is that they ring true motivationally and psychologically. It is in this domain that Close Encounters retains its appeal.
The release of an extended version of the movie with extra scenes within the alien ship indicated where the appeal lay for many viewers. However, the virtue and value of the film lies not in the special effects but in the study of Roy’s obsession. We see this obsession from the inside. We are with Roy when he has his first encounter; we understand the power of the experience. As his behaviour becomes more erratic, its necessity carries us along with it. There is no choice, we understand, and while we also understand the uncomprehending response of those who have not seen, we know that they are wrong, for we also are initiates, having shared the moment with Roy.
This is a complete inversion of our normal understanding of behaviour. Consider the question from the point of view of Roy’s family and friends. Roy comes home claiming to have seen, not some strange light in the sky, but a whole procession of UFOs running along at road level, pursued by police cars; and that just for starters. That at least is a concrete incident. But as well as these strange (and unsubstantiated) tales, Roy has started to behave in a manner that is, frankly, schizoid. What would you think?
In the long run, whether Roy is vindicated or convicted depends upon the underlying reality. If the events Roy relates did actually happen, then he has encountered the Other, limitlessly powerful, glorious and awe-inspiring, and such an encounter will, of course, alter forever the human lives it touches. If these events did not actually occur, then Roy has gone insane, for reasons which may never be understood, and he must be treated as a person of whom rational behaviour can no longer be expected. The question is moot in this case: we know this story is made up, and we do not have to closely examine our responses while we slip into the world of the movie. There are cases where these comfortable conditions do not apply.
O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
It’s Jeremiah, Chapter 20, 7-9, and it’s one of a number of similar passages recorded for the prophet by his scribe, Baruch. What are we to make of Jeremiah? He, too, has had an encounter with the Other, limitlessly powerful, glorious and awe-inspiring. No flying hardware, no flashing lights, as far as we know. Instead, just the word of the LORD. Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah…to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah…in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim…until the eleventh year of Zedekiah… (2-3). Is this a fictional story; or is Jeremiah suffering from schizophrenia; or is this a account of events that actually occurred?
If the story is a fiction, it was constructed after the fact, and the “prophecies” of Jeremiah are, not to put too fine a point on it, lies. That doesn’t reflect well on the writer; but it does avoid the problem of the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecies. The “problem” is this: for anyone who adopts an a priori position that all miracle stories are legendary—and intimations of future events surely qualify as miraculous—another explanation must be found.
There is another way around this difficulty that does not require such a blanket rejection of the validity of the book. Enlightened moderns can develop a more medically sound analysis that allows honesty and integrity to the prophet, while still denying any supernatural content. The “prophet” is in the grip of a psychosis, and goes around Jerusalem articulating his delusions. In the course of this, he stumbles upon insight into the fate of Judah and Israel, much as some of the many pundits who make a career of predicting political and economic futures might, with a little insight and a lot of luck, stumble on accurate forecasts of events over the course of the next year or two. Think of the row of “prophets” peddling their various visions along the street in “Life of Brian,” and you will get my drift. From the vantage point of 21st century psychology and psychiatry, our contemporaries can diagnose Jeremiah’s condition at a remove of twenty-seven centuries on the basis of two books that have come down to us. While such a diagnosis is of no relevance to Jeremiah, it is a spiritual anaesthetic for those who offer it.
Alternatively, one can continue to read Jeremiah as he has been read for the past twenty-seven centuries: as a true account of the life and times of one of the prophets, telling a vital part of the story of God’s self-revelation to fallen humanity through his chosen people.
Whichever reading you choose will colour, and be coloured by, your understanding of God, of Christ, and of the Church through the millennia.