19 Sept 2017
This past weekend was the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of the best movies of the 20th century, according to 873 different lists, including American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies. Of course I did not miss the opportunity to see it once again on a massive screen, something I hadn’t done since I was 14.
I probably know every note of John Williams’s score after having worn out two vinyl record versions, a cassette tape, and a CD. I’ve read the book three and a half times, and I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes documentary twice. A copy of an early movie poster is rolled away carefully in some closet, somewhere, and only a special few of my contacts announce their calls by the iconic 5-note theme on my phone. I’m an average fan.
It struck me, as my own viewing obsession partly mirrored Richard Dreyfuss’s involuntary compulsion to find Devil’s Tower–did I mention that I’ve been there?–that part of the wonder from the story is the absence of alien antagonism. Abductions are mysterious, not malevolent, It’s a story of a search, not a triumph over evil. We have, in this story, really nothing to fear.
“We have, in this story, really nothing to fear.”
Set aside the Star Trek universe, and we have created too few stories of us meeting The Other and finding a friend. The most well-known might be Klaatu (and Gort?), Neytiri, the Star Child, and a few unnamed aliens from Contact, The Abyss, and Arrival. (Most others come from children’s films.) And, in every one of these cases, it is human ego and ignorance which nearly dooms our meeting. No, when it comes to meeting the inhuman, we nearly always meet something inimical, narratively transforming our ignorance to a virtue.
Science fiction has lined up for us decades of extraterrestrial villains, invaders and possessors, absorbers and infiltrators. Each has a means slightly different from his predecessor, but the motives are identical: to destroy the noble us. The morality of the alien invader is seemingly unfathomable, the allegory of the creature is human sin (violent, gluttonous, carnal), and the resolution of the conflict is nearly always a narrow victory by mankind.
Thus with any we see as Other. We are redeemed through the story by defeating the mysterious force which motivates the worst of our own vices. Predator, Alien, kaiju, and Wellsian Martians are different manifestations of violence and hubris; Pitch Black creatures consume, They Live aliens enslave; Species creatures have carnal appetites. And The Thing reminds us that, but for our “purity,” we are inches from our own grotesque metamorphosis.
When it comes to meeting the inhuman, we nearly always meet something inimical, narratively transforming our ignorance to a virtue.
None of this is original or enlightening. The Other is little but a mirror we hold before us. When we make films of the evil alien “other,” we attempt to defeat the worst in ourselves that (we wish) was truly alien . . . and not human, after all.
If alien invasion stories are simply the science fiction genre’s own turn at displacing our self-loathing, I’m not sure that the friendly alien is wholly better for us. In that version of the story, we are the monsters. We destroy planets, slaughter the innocent in fear, enslave the weak, and conspire to cover it up. Somehow the aliens rise above it, triumph over the evil, and humble us with their nobility. Happy ending. Those of us in the audience, satisfied at the outcome, nod agreeably to justice against our own failings. And so, once again, the Navi people are saved and we have created another allegory of self-loathing.
“Somehow the aliens rise above it, triumph over the evil, and humble us with their nobility. Happy ending.”
The mirror–a Lacanian one, perhaps–works in each story, never permitting us as humans or storytellers to see (let alone begin to understand) the community next door.
And so I return to 40 years of fandom for Close Encounters, in some ways a film that seeks to slip this pattern. Yes, the human frailty is here, but none of the characters–Roy or his wife Ronnie, their kids, Jillian and Barry–do anything but make difficult and understandable choices. Even our “evil” government agencies in the end work to make genuine contact rather than embrace fear.
And, in the end, the film makes no explanations for its mysterious Other than the most rudimentary of gestures. How could a tidy answer be found inside its brief narrative? Instead, Roy–like 2001’s David Bowman, The Abyss’s Virgil, and Contact’s Ellie– accepts their touch, their gentle lead, and steps into their space without certainty.
The film ends with its mystery as open as its protagonist, it makes no claims to mythologize The Other as evil or good, and we are satisfied because–at our best–we set aside the selfish Looking Glass and find something new and real.