Close Encounters: Unidentified Flying Object Relations

by Andrew Gordon

[This article appeared in The Psychoanalytic Review 82.5 (October 1995): 741-57.]

Early in Close Encounters, Roy Neary's children are watching The Ten Commandments (1956), the last film of director Cecil B. DeMille, on television. Close Encounters itself is in many ways indebted to the films of the fifties--not only the flying saucer subgenre of science fiction but also the Biblical spectaculars. As critics have noted, the movie is a religious epic, with the aliens as gods or angels:1 they are omniscient and omnipresent, telepathic, able to defy gravity, to overcome the limitations of time and space, and associated always with blinding light. Like St. Paul, the hero Roy Neary experiences a revelation at a crossroads and is born again. He abandons his previous life in an all-consuming quest for the godhead, contact with the aliens. Although he is mocked and scorned, driven nearly insane, and loses his job and his wife and children, he persists in his singleminded devotion. One critic says, "Like Moses, Neary has to reach his Mount Sinai. . . the Devil's Tower" (Williams 27). Like Christ at his crucifixion, Neary is 33. And Neary is the chosen one: among the twelve civilians who reach the mountain, he is the only one to ascend into the heavens in the mothership, the chariot of the gods.

Special Affect

As in the Biblical epics of the fifties, in Close Encounters Spielberg attempts to impress through the power of light, sound, and special effects and to induce in both the characters and the audience the emotions associated with religious miracles: confusion, amazement, fear, wonder, and awe. Whereas the Biblical spectaculars relied on the power of conventional religious mythology, Spielberg draws on the power of contemporary pop mythology, the persistent belief in UFOs and alien visitation. He tries to gain our credence through realistic contemporary detail and our faith through overwhelming spectacle.

According to Vivian Sobchack, in the American science fiction film starting with Star Wars and Close Encounters, "special effect" equals "special affect." She claims that the emotion expressed in contemporary science fiction film often tends to be a free-floating euphoria created by technological display. Close Encounters "initiates a new iconography of beatific human wonder, editorially linking affect to effect. Heads tilted, eyes gazing upward with childish openness and unfearful expectancy--this is the human face of transcendence whose emotion is enacted by what it sees" (Screening Space 284). The faces staring up at the alien mothership in the final sequence of that film have always reminded me of blissed-out Moonies.

My concern here is with the exact nature and possible psychological origin of the "special affect" evoked in the characters and perhaps as well in much of the mass audience of Close Encounters.

The Transformational Object

The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas speaks of "the transformational object": a memory from early object relations, when the mother "continually transforms the infant's internal and external environment." In later life, we may "search for an object that is identified with the metamorphosis of the self." In aesthetic experiences, for example, we may feel "an uncanny fusion with the object." The uncanny feeling derives from the return of something strangely familiar, "something never cognitively apprehended but existentially known" (16). Bollas claims this is a recollection of fusion with the maternal "transformational object."

Many adults search fanatically for a total transformation which they imagine will come about through religious or ideological experience. This obsessive craving can be understood as "a kind of psychic prayer for the arrival of the transformational object: a secular second coming of an object relation experienced in the earliest period of life" (17).

Roy Neary's obsessive search for the UFO can be considered a quest for the transformational object. It is a pilgrimage, but one that goes backwards from adulthood to infancy. Close Encounters, I would argue, regresses to a primitive or preoedipal stage where the boundaries between reality and fantasy, the animate and the inanimate, mother and child, self and not-self are fluid. This breakdown of boundaries is experienced by the hero as a feeling of oceanic bliss akin to religious ecstasy: "a secular second coming." That is why the film has all the overtones of a Biblical epic: throughout it, both hero and audience are awaiting the second coming. The payoff comes in the phantasmagoria of light and sound in the conclusion: the aliens return to pick up Roy and lift him into the heavens; similarly, the movie picks us up and sweeps us toward the fulfillment of a fantasy. And just as the aliens function as Roy's transformational object, so I would suggest that Spielberg as director of the film functions as ours.

Although Roy Neary has much in common with certain earlier Spielberg heroes--David Mann in Duel and Brody in Jaws, characters who need to find their identity and to assert their manhood by leaving behind wives and children and going out into a dangerous world--paradoxically, Roy finds his identity and manhood by continuously regressing. He begins as a child-man and ends in a state of infantile bliss as he enters the spectacular womb of the mothership. The dazzling, brightly lit carrousel of a ship, claims Sobchack, "resolves Roy Neary's intense and incompatible desire both to regain his patriarchal power and become a born-again child" (Screening Space 284).

The Opening Scene of Close Encounters

The film opens with a transformational moment which suggests both the Biblical instant of creation and the birth trauma. Spielberg as director plays God, opening his movie by announcing, "Let there be light!" He relies brilliantly and suggestively on the fundamental powers of the cinema, painting with light and sound. Out of blackness and silence an eerie musical sound slowly builds until it climaxes with a shattering chord and a sudden flash of light that fills the screen. This opening shot establishes the pattern throughout the film of abrupt switches from darkness, stillness, and silence to blinding light, rapid movement, and loud noise. Spielberg repeatedly lulls and then jolts the audience, keeping us alert by inducing the startle reflex. He places the viewer in a position similar to that of an infant subjected to sudden and bewildering transformations in its environment, with no control over the abrupt alterations in stimuli.

But by the end of the film the dangerous, intrusive alien light has been transformed into a reassuring maternal light. Writes Robert Philip Kolker, "Threat and protection, fear and security are the opposing poles of Spielberg's thematic. The light piercing through his films plays on both violating the viewer's safe distance from the narratives by demanding attention, forcing the gaze, hiding objects and then revealing those objects, surrounding them with a protective glow" (271).

In this opening shot, Spielberg not only startles but also visually disorients us. Out of the whiteness, two lights approach, accompanied by a howling noise and the sound of machinery. We don't where we are or what the lights are; they could even be the lights of a flying saucer. Only as they approach are they revealed as the headlights of a jeep seen through the obscuring clouds of a desert sandstorm (an apparent homage to the desert scenes in the 1950s science-fiction films It Came from Outer Space [1953] and Them [1954]). Spielberg exploits the same visual uncertainty for comedy, mystery, or suspense in later scenes, when neither the characters nor the audience can tell at first the difference between the lights of a car or a helicopter and those of a UFO.

Along with the visual disorientation goes a deliberate confusion of sound. The opening scene is a babble of voices speaking English, Spanish, and French, further confused by overlapping dialogue and lines shouted against the howling sandstorm. The welter of sound, along with rapid movement and quick cutting, add to the tension of the opening, which is a scene of mystery and high excitement, a moment of uncanny discovery. By the end of the film, the characters have essentially moved beyond (or regressed away from) the need for the confusions of language, communicating almost entirely through light, musical tones, and gestures.

The first closeup in the film is of the face of Laughlin, the English-French interpreter, who interprets for the audience as well, asking questions necessary for the exposition: "Where's the pilot? Where's the crew? How the hell did it get here?" and most important, "What the hell is happening here?" He is a short man who is repeatedly dwarfed during the opening scene by high angle shots. In the final shot, he takes a few nervous steps backwards and looks up fearfully at the sky. Laughlin's bewilderment, wonder, and fear cue the audience; the entire scene is meant to induce in us the kinds of emotions appropriate to the witnesses of a religious miracle.

The aliens are established in this opening scene as mysterious, godlike, unseen presences who come out of the heavens and perform miracles. The airplanes which they leave in the desert are totems which represent their power (airplanes function as holy objects in many Spielberg films, especially 1941, "The Mission," Empire of the Sun, and Always). The aliens are also symbolized by blinding light and a haunting tune. "Una luz muy bonita pero muy espantosa," says the Mexican policeman, expressing his emotional ambivalence: "A very beautiful but a very frightening light." Like the mother as apprehendended by an infant, the alien mothership appears suddenly and vanishes unpredictably, totally altering the environment. The innocent, the crazy, or the childlike fall under its spell. "El sol sali¢ anoche y me cant¢," says the crazy old Mexican: "The sun came out last night and sang to me." One imagines the mother crooning a lullaby.

The aliens are not that different, however, from Spielberg the unseen director, who startles us at the opening of his film with a flash of light and a blast of music. In his relation to the audience, Spielberg functions as the aliens do toward the hero Roy Neary: as magician and miracle maker, as transformational object.

The Character of Roy Neary

We first meet Roy as he is playing in his living room with electric trains. Their typical American, middle-class suburban household is cluttered and claustrophobic (as opposed to the wide open spaces of the conclusion) (Williams 27). It is not a scene of domestic happiness: Roy lacks a good rapport with either his children or his wife, and the tension foreshadows his later alienation from his family. Superficially, they resemble a television sitcom family, complete with hapless dad, domineering mom, and three fractious kids. There is some comedy in their introductory bickering and in Roy's later crazy antics, but the Nearys grow progressively less amusing, and their problems are not resolved easily and sentimentally as in a television comedy; they only get worse. In the background in the Nearys' first scene, the younger son, Toby, who is five or six, smashes a doll against a playpen. In a later scene Toby pounds the piano keys as his parents argue: his discord reflects the family's disintegration. This is not a happy family, so it is not surprising that it eventually breaks up.

Roy's elder son, eight-year-old Brad, is baffled by his father's attempt to explain fractions, and all threee kids are unimpressed with his choice of a film for family viewing. The kids want to play miniature golf, but Roy is determined to take them to Pinocchio because he enjoyed its "furry animals and magic" when he was a boy. Brad says contemptuously, "Who wants to go see a dumb cartoon, rated G for kids?" Roy is the real child in the family (later Brad calls him a "crybaby").

Like David Mann in Duel, Roy seems henpecked. Although Roy is happy playing with his trains, his wife Ronnie is unhappy and shows it by criticizing and belittling him; she is the most unsympathetic wife in Spielberg's films (the nagging wife in Duel is also unpleasant, but she only gets a cameo appearance). In her opening lines, Ronnie reminds Roy of his promise to take them to a movie and thrusts the paper in front of him so he can't ignore her request. Then she complains bitterly about his hobby materials cluttering her breakfast table, sits in a chair and glares at him, and criticizes him in front of the children about his methods of parenting. On the phone, she tells his supervisor that "Roy can't drive at night without me." She condescendingly calls him "Jiminy Cricket" because of his preference for Pinocchio. In other words, Ronnie treats Roy as if he were her fourth child, the problem child, and tries to get her way by criticizing, belittling, manipulating, and sulking. In contrast, Roy seems like a big kid trying to jolly the family along but always overruled by Ronnie. Ronnie is not only his wife but also his bad mother.

In later scenes, Ronnie proves to be far more conventional and closed-minded than Roy. She doesn't believe in UFOs and censors the newspaper so Roy won't find any more articles about them to feed his obsession. She is overly concerned about what the neighbors will think and unsympathetic to her husband's nervous breakdown, treating it as the bad behavior of a wayward child, something he is doing deliberately to upset her and wreck the family. The characters in this film divide along questions of belief: grownups like Ronnie who treat the saucers as childishness, nonsense, or insanity, versus those who are children at heart, like Roy, and believe in magic. The same opposition occurs in the "Kick the Can" episode of the Twilight Zone movie, where the sourpuss Mr. Conroy opposes the dispenser of magic Mr. Bloom. One critic says that Close Encounters "establishes a two-class system: the childlike and the nonchildlike" (Neustadter 234); the same is true of E.T., "Kick the Can," and Hook as well.

Roy's family is negatively characterized so that we won't be bothered later when Ronnie takes the children and leaves him. We are in fact glad to see them go. Freed of the burden of dreary domesticity, Roy can now ascend totally into the realm of the fantastic, finally boarding a spaceship and abandoning his wife and children, perhaps forever, in favor of a space family.

Like Pinocchio, Roy hungers to become a real live boy, and he gets his wish upon a star granted because he never loses faith, so that the good fairy ultimately returns to him. What this child really needs is a good mother, not the evil wife-mother Ronnie.

As Roy drives his truck that night on business for the power company, he loses his way in the dark and cries out, "Help, I'm lost!" What happens next suggests that the aliens are responding to his cry and helping him to find himself, or at least to find what he secretly desires. An extreme long shot shows the truck as tiny, overshadowed by the enormous night sky; we sense that Roy is driving into something cosmic and mysterious. When the alien light strikes his truck at the crossroads, all hell breaks loose: disturbances in electricity and gravity, and objects moving by themselves. He gasps and twitches, overwhelmed. (Ironically, the same kind of disturbances occur in Poltergeist, but there they are perceived solely as evil and the characters have no desire to repeat them.) Roy has been chosen, blinded by the light and seized by the power; the aliens leave their mark on him externally, through the sunburn, and internally, through the telepathically implanted obsession. Call it religious conversion, mystical transformation, or nervous breakdown, but from that moment Roy's life is ruled by the compulsion to repeat the experience and merge with the aliens. As he races after them in his truck, the ship passes overhead; symbolically, Roy is cast into the shadow of the object. Could this huge object which overwhelms both physically and psychically, an object with which one desires to merge, be a symbolic representation of the mother as perceived by the infant?

For Roy, the desire to fuse with the aliens is a consummation beyond the sexual. Later that night, he takes his wife to the Echo Summit, hoping to show her the return of the ships, and she tries to neck with him to distract him from what she sees as his unhealthy obsession. "They kiss, but Neary's eyes are skyward, choosing to remain in the world of pre-puberty" (Williams 24). (In Jaws, Ellen Brody also uses sex to try to distract her husband from his obsession with the shark.) The world of adult sexual relationships is excluded from the film: even the possible romance between Roy and Jillian is never fulfilled because that would prevent him from sailing off to the stars. Roy's sexuality gets sublimated into playing with his mashed potatoes (or with clay) and into looking, as when he and Jillian spy on the landing site at Devil's Tower, like children spying on the primal scene.

Roy's story is paralleled by that of four-year-old Barry Guiler, who also abandons home and mother to chase aliens. "Barry lives alone with his mother, Jillian, in [a] fatherless pre-Oedipal paradise" (Torry 194). Both Roy and Barry love mechanical toys, and both seek only to return to the bliss of the womb, represented by the gigantic mothership. From his first encounter with the aliens, Barry is unafraid and accepting. To him, the aliens are a giggle, ideal playmates: "toys" and "ice cream," the good mother and none of the bad. When Barry is pulled through the cat door by the aliens, it is a birth scene run backwards.

Alien as Breast

It is interesting how often in Close Encounters the aliens are associated with food: both Roy and Barry call the ships ice cream cones; Ronnie asks if they resemble tacos or "those Sara Lee moon-shaped cookies"; the alien visitors raid the family refrigerator (as the extraterrestrial does in E.T.); the trucks going to meet the aliens are falsely labelled Piggly Wiggly, Coca Cola, and Baskin Robbins (ice cream again); and Roy tries to sculpt the tower out of mashed potatoes.

Significantly, two early drafts of the script of Close Encounters directly associate the aliens with breasts. In a second draft screenplay (dated 9-2-75), Ronnie has consulted a psychiatrist who might help Roy and quotes him to Roy about "Isakower's phenomenon," in which "the brain retains information from infancy long before your memory is able to recall it. The large circular thing you saw getting closer and closer probably represents your mother's breast with its promise of food" ("Close Encounters," 1975 screenplay, 55-56). Roy angrily rejects Ronnie's psychologizing.

In a draft dated 5-10-76, the reference persists, but now it is downgraded to something Ronnie read in Cosmopolitan:

RONNIE: The fact that these things come closer and closer represents your mother's breast with its promise of food. When satisfied, you, the infant, lose interest in the breast which goes away, getting smaller. The shape of the female breast is. . .
ROY: Ronnie, I did not see my mother's tits coming in low over the Mt. Pleasant foothills!
("Close Encounters," 1976 screenplay, 52-53).

Nevertheless, Despite Roy's dismissal of her psychologizing, both drafts contain a scene in which Roy becomes fixated on Ronnie's breasts, reminding us of the shape he keeps obsessively sculpting:

A new and curious mood colors over him. He has leveled his vision on Ronnie's healthy breasts. But strangely, not in any way sexual. . . . Ronnie hunkers down between the sheets so that her breasts silhouette against a shaft in the moonlight on the beige dresser. GREENHOUSE [Neary's name in early drafts] WATCHES THE SILHOUETTE AND IS MYSTERIOUSLY TRANSFIXED BY IT. ("Close Encounters," 1975 screenplay, 37)

Roy slides down to her breasts and. . .fixates. Almost immediately his anxiety flows out of him. He cocks his head to the side and stares at her silhouetted breast. ("Close Encounters," 1976 screenplay, 66C).

Roy's responses here would have to be called infantile: like a baby, he does not perceive the breast as sexual, and the sight of it eases his anxiety. These scenes were omitted from the film, probably because Spielberg considered them too psychologically and sexually explicit; nevertheless, their persistence through several drafts suggests that Spielberg (or the writers he hired) was at least partially aware of the psychosexual undercurrents of the fantasy he was creating.

Of course, it is too simple to say that what Roy and Barry seek is the bliss of the womb or the maternal breast. These objects are associated with the transformational object, which, as Bollas notes, represents a memory trace of an early relationship: the infant's experience of fusion with the mother and of the mother's power to transform the environment.

The Characterization of the Aliens

What is unique about the transformational object in this film is not so much the omnipotence of the aliens, which one would expect, but their asexuality, their childishness, their lack of language, and their prankishness. The asexuality and childishness render them innocent and appealing and cancel the threat of their power. They are naked as cherubs, carry no instruments or weapons, and have no visible sexual organs. Like E.T., whom they resemble, they represent the paradox of impotent omnipotence, the powerful figure of the parent crossed with a child's imaginary companion, who remains on the child's own level. Their lack of verbal language (they communicate through music) links them to the preverbal infant's perception of the mother; at that stage, all language is music, meaningful only as emotional tones. The film itself dispenses with dialogue in its closing minutes, using only light, gesture, and music, the language of pure emotion.

The irrational behavior of the aliens is another matter. They have godlike powers but behave like imps or elves. These merry pranksters lead policemen on a high-speed chase, nearly collide with a passenger plane, cause blackouts over entire cities, plunk a missing ship down in the middle of a desert, and kidnap many people, including a child, just for the hell of it. This is scarcely appropriate behavior for envoys from another world out to win friends on planet Earth. Instead, they seem to delight in wreaking havoc for no reason, although, as in Poltergeist, no one is seriously harmed by their antics, only shaken up. They are impractical jokers, benign mischief makers. All is presumably made right in the end when they return the missing people (which overlooks the problem of the time lost in captivity). But their irrational behavior keeps us in suspense, making us wonder for most of the film if these aliens are good or evil. One critic notes, "several of their initial actions have seemed capricious, even cruel. . . . the aliens have been associated with loss and the threat of loss, as they will be again in the abduction of Barry" (Torry 193).

Close Encounters has many of the trappings of a traditional horror movie, and the aliens in some ways behave like monsters, which is why it was easy for Spielberg to recycle this same material in Poltergeist. But at the same time, Close Encounters employs some of the conventions of a romantic film: these aliens are playing with and even wooing the earthlings. A good illustration of this generic blending is the kidnapping of Barry: it is the scariest scene in the movie, but there is a striking difference between the response of the mother and that of the child. Although Jillian is terrified as the aliens penetrate her home to seize her son, Barry is totally accepting. He knows they've come to play, and he invites them to slide down the chimney as if he were expecting Santa Claus. The scene enacts an ambivalent response to the transformational object, which, as the Mexican policeman saidin the opening scene, is both very beautiful and very frightening. (There is a similar ambivalence in an early scene in Poltergeist: after Diane demonstrates the spooky goings-on in her kitchen, she jumps for joy like a cheerleader while her husband's eyes go wide with fear and her little daughter yawns.) Here, as Jillian cowers in terror because extraterrestrials threaten to invade her house, the phonograph, in ironic counterpoint, plays a Johnny Mathis love song: "Chances are, if I wear a silly grin/ The moment you come into view. . . ."

So the terror of loss or separation anxiety is countered by the promise of love: horror movie crosses with the romance of boy and alien. The prankishness of the aliens in this scene has two simultaneous connotations, one malelovent and the other benign, reflecting a split in the attitude toward the maternal object: on the one hand, it is seen as a monster callously toying with human beings; on the other, it is a lover playing with its beloved. Horror movie crosses with romance. And Roy Neary's story is really a love story: boy meets UFO; boy loses UFO; boy gets UFO.

Spielberg as Merry Prankster

Many of Spielberg's films aside from Close Encounters deal with pranksters or monsters on a spree or rampage for little or no apparent reason: Duel, Sugarland Express, Jaws, 1941, and Poltergeist are other examples. Sometimes these characters are evil, but in other films they mean no harm. Spielberg himself is a prankster, and cinema offers him free rein, like the aliens, to play god or devil, to wreak havoc while harming no one. In particular, Spielberg likes to startle and surprise the audience with tricks, jokes, and sight gags. He wants to shock the audience but then to hug them; the hug undoes the harm and sets you up for the next shock or surprise. This is also how he tormented his three younger sisters when they were growing up. And while filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, he would unexpectedly drop live snakes or tarantulas on actor Karen Allen to elicit real screams on camera. "But I always kissed her, gently, after every take." (I wonder if he would have dared pull this stunt on Harrison Ford!)

Spielberg is great at playing cinematic tricks, and they impress and entertain vast audiences. It is possible that he has simply endowed the aliens in Close Encounters and the ghosts in Poltergeist with some of his own personality traits. But if we consider the aliens as the transformational object, their prankishness may also reflect erratic or capricious maternal care. I imagine an infant who is alternately scared and reassured. Roy Neary pleads with his wife, "Ronnie, I'm really scared. I want you to help. . . .Just hold me. Just put your arms around me." But Ronnie, representing the bad mother, violently rejects him. Spielberg's aliens seem to partake of both aspects of the maternal object: they are a source of bliss but they are also elusive jokers who can drive you crazy. So Spielberg may in part be doing to audiences what was done to him, or the way that he experienced the relationship with the mother in childhood. That long, beatific closing sequence of Close Encounters may be necessary in part to relieve both the characters' and the audience's frustration.

Departure and Reunion, Separation and Fusion

The film could be said to be patterned by an opposition between departure and reunion, separation and fusion. Barry twice wanders off from his mother and twice is reunited with her. Roy stays home, but his family leaves him. In a poignant moment, the lonely Roy looks out from behind the curtains at his neighbors in their backyards; he is forever separated from them and their everyday activities. Roy and Jillian are dramatically reunited just as she is about to depart from the train station in Wyoming, then they are separated when they are arrested, reunited on the helicopter, and finally part with a kiss at the alien landing site. Roy's climactic departure combines both separation and fusion: he is leaving the earth but joining the aliens in the mothership.

A similar opposition in the film occurs between the creation of boundaries and the breaking down of boundaries. Ronnie is concerned with territoriality: she resents Roy's stuff on her breakfast table. As their marriage worsens, Roy locks himself in the bathroom, and then Ronnie too locks the door against him. The authorities erect numerous barriers to keep people away from Devil's Tower; Roy simply ignores their obstacles, driving against the traffic or crashing through the roadblocks. He is inspired or compelled by the aliens, who represent the exhilirating dissolution of all boundaries: at the state line between Indiana and Ohio, they fly through the toll booth without stopping or paying. Time and distance mean nothing to them, as in the way they treat the stolen planes and the ship. They even break down the barriers between minds through telepathy.

Close Encounters plays on these oppositions between separation and fusion, barriers and the dissolution of barriers because the goal of the hero and the film seems to be to overcome separation anxiety, to break down all boundaries and achieve the bliss of total fusion with the transformational object. In this film, many are called, but only Roy is chosen, and he seems to be picked by Lacombe and the aliens through the pure omnipotence of wishful thinking--certainly not through anything that he says. His fusion with the aliens is suggested by penetrating beams of light and telepathic communion, culminating in his final entry into the mothership and the liftoff into outer space.

Robert Philip Kolker suggests how Spielberg uses camera movement as well to help the viewer overcome separation anxiety as the film ends:

there are a series of low angle tracks moving away from the wondering humans, releasing tension, preparing the viewer not only for the departure of the spacecraft, but for his or her own separation from the narrative--though the final separation is not complete until the viewer is further subdued and excited by the massive forms of the ship and the overwhelming soundtrack (278).

Close Encounters and E.T. have prolonged, operatic conclusions which are heavily weighted, deeply emotional scenes of farewell. There is no dialogue in the final minutes of Close Encounters except for little Barry, as a sort of stand-in for the viewer, saying "Bye" to the departing mothership. Both Roy and the viewer have recuperated the transformational object, and now we must be prepared to separate from it: thus the protracted close.

Oedipal Conflict in Close Encounters

Is the film, however, entirely about the infant-mother dyad? What has happened to oedipal conflict? What is the function then of such apparent father figures as Lacombe? One critic sees the film as symbolically expressing an oedipal conflict: "Neary's experience of loss, his fear of losing his mind (a symbolic castration), and . . . the insistent image of the Devil's Tower involve him in a strategic reenactment of the Oedipal drama . . . . Neary must undergo a symbolic 're-Oedipalization' the effect of which is a renewed faith in the ultimate beneficence of paternal authority" (Torry 194).

I would argue, however, that although there may be an oedipal conflict underlying the action, the film is fundamentally regressive: it defends against oedipal anxiety by a flight into an earlier stage of development. Roy's avoidance of adult sexuality, his irresponsibility, and his preference for play all imply this regression. The Devil's Tower may appear to evoke the "role of the paternal phallus" (Torry 194), but as I have suggested, in this film it is turned instead into a symbolic breast. And the mothership is a spectacular floating breast.

In Close Encounters (and in E.T. as well), fathers and male authorities are generally absent or untrustworthy. Barry has no father--it is never explained why Gillian is a single parent--and Roy abdicates his parental responsibility, although he gains a new space family at the end in which he can be simultaneously parent and child. "Surrounded by the little and curious aliens, bathed in light, Roy Neary is a figure beatifically re-solved as powerful patriarch, loving father, and lovable child" (Sobchack, "Child/Alien/Father" 21). Government officials are bad fathers who cover up the existence of the UFOS, lying to the public (this combines the conspiracy theories of UFOlogists with post-Watergate paranoia), and Roy is angry with them and rebels against them.

The exception, the only wholly good father figure in the film, is Lacombe, who resembles Keys in E.T.: a scientist who shares the hero's faith in miracles and magic, a benign, permissive father who is really a child at heart. Spielberg says he wanted Truffaut for the part after seeing the famous director act in his films L'Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child) (1970) and La Nuit Americaine (Day for Night) (1973): "He was a man-child in those films. Ingenuous and wise, a father-figure with this very wild-eyed, young outlook on life. I didn't want the stoic with the white hair and the pipe. . . . He [Truffaut] was the best possible choice. Such a mensch. So human" (Crawley 63). These remarks suggest that Truffaut, a fellow director, functioned for Spielberg as a reflection of his own ego ideal or idealized self-image as a wise man-child, forever young. The fact that he resorts to the Yiddish of his parents to describe him may imply that Truffaut is as well a substitute parent for Spielberg: not a stoic like Spielberg's real father but warm and young at heart like Spielberg's mother. In other words, Truffaut/Lacombe unites the aspects Spielberg prefers in child, father, and mother into a single idealized figure, a self-representation. Morover, as a Frenchman who barely speaks English, Lacombe is an authority but also an outsider. Like the extraterrestrials, he is simultaneously child, adult, and alien (Sobchack, "Child/Alien/Father" 21). The matching gestures and smiles of Lacombe and the space creature at the end suggest their similarity.

Conclusion: See No Evil

To combine child, father, and mother into a single figure--Neary, Lacombe, or the alien--I see as Spielberg's (probably unconscious) strategy in Close Encounters, a way to evade or neutralize oedipal conflict. It is a strategic retreat or regression.

In its invitation to regress and its benign view of the universe, Close Encounters is very appealing and comforting. Regression, after all, can be fun. Roy Neary moves from depression into mania; the end of the film is visually and emotionally euphoric both for the hero and the audience. A temporary manic high, too, can be lots of fun. And viewed simply as son et lumiere, a spectacle meant to induce awe and wonder, it is a dazzling, seductive film. The images are rich, suggestive and sometimes deeply moving.

But the rational or skeptical side of me resists its sweet and sunny appeal and sees it as a potentially cultist or occultist movie; that's why the ecstatic faces staring upward at the aliens in the conclusion remind me of blissed-out Moonies.2 Close Encounters, some critics complained, "obviously plays to the sort of religious revivalism rampant in the mid and late seventies" (Ryan and Kellner 260). I think of what Christopher Evans wrote in Cults of Unreason: "With the old Gods dying, if not dead, and the world menaced by threat of total destruction as never before in its history, men are turning to the skies to seek their redeemers there" (164). In 1978, shortly after Close Encounters was first released, a student of mine said she was so impressed by the movie she was seriously thinking of dropping out of school to investigate reports of saucer sightings. I agreed that it was a lovely movie but advised her not to waste her time.

Perhaps I resist Close Encounters because the solutions it offers are too easy. My wife said, "The really courageous thing for Roy would have been not to walk into the mothership but to go home and clean up that mess he left in the living room!" That's the adult in us responding to the seductively childlike appeal of this film.

I referred to the quote from The Ten Commandments, but Close Encounters is not really Biblical parable: there is no harsh God here who forces the Israelites to wander forty years in the desert. It is more like fairy tale, a softened version of "Pinocchio" or "Hansel and Gretel." As I mentioned, like Pinocchio, Roy gets his wish to be transformed by the good fairy. But there is no Monstro, the terrible whale that swallows boys alive (and no giant shark either!); instead there is a benevolent mothership that welcomes the hero inside. Alternately, we can see Roy and Barry as orphans who get lost in the woods and discover a gingerbread house. But once they enter the enchanted cottage, they find no witch who wants to fatten them them up for the kill, only friendly aliens who want to play. "Everybody in this movie is so bloody benign--and the good feeling is contagious," writes Richard Corliss (80). For me, that's the problem with Close Encounters: even Oz had wicked witches, and Duel and Jaws had a mad truck and a crazed shark. But in the world of the transformational object, there is no evil to overcome.


For views of Close Encounters as a religious film, see for example the articles by Corliss, Gardner, Henning, Kael, and Kauffmann. Entman and Seymour argue that the film has religious form but no religious content: "Religions have theologies, duties, parables, and worldly institutions, all of which provide some rational reason to have faith and some guidance in living in accordance with that faith. The aliens provide none of this" (4).

For my reading of Close Encounters as an occultist film, see Gordon, "Close Encounters: The Gospel According to Steven Spielberg."


Bollas, Christopher. The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. NY: Columbia, 1987.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind." 2nd Draft Screenplay by "Sam Irvin." September 2, 1975.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Revised Draft Screenplay by Steven Spielberg. May 14, 1976 (includes revisions dated April 22, 1976, and May 10, 12, and 14, 1976).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition. Columbia, 1980. Producers: Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips. Story: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Steven Spielberg. Director: Steven Spielberg. Visual Effects: Douglas Trumbull. Director of Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Additional Photography: William A. Fraker, Douglas Slocombe, John Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs. Production Design: Joe Alves. Editing: Michael Kahn. Music: John Williams. Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary); Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary); Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler); Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler); Bob Balaban (David Laughlin).

Corliss, Richard. "An Encounter of the Best Kind." New Times, December 9, 1977, 76 and 80.

Crawley, Tony. The Steven Spielberg Story. NY: Quill, 1983.

Entman, Robert and Francie Seymour. "Close Encounters with the Third Reich." Jump Cut 18 (1978): 3-6.

Evans, Christopher. Cults of Unreason. NY: Dell, 1975.

Gardner, Martin. "The Third Coming." The New York Review of Books, January 26, 1978, 22.

Gordon, Andrew. "Close Encounters: The Gospel According to Steven Spielberg." Literature/Film Quarterly 8.3 (1980): 156-64.

Henning, Clara Maria. "Star Wars and Close Encounters." Theology Today 35.2 (1978): 202-06.

Kael, Pauline. "The Greening of the Solar System." New Yorker, November 28, 1977, 174-81.

Kauffmann, Stanley. "Epiphany." The New Republic, December 10, 1977, 20-22.

Kolker, Robert Phillip. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. 2nd Ed. NY: Oxford, 1988.

Neustadter, Roger. "Phone Home: From Childhood Amnesia to the Catcher in Sci-Fi--The Transformation of Childhood in Contemporary American Science Fiction Films." Youth and Society 20.3 (1989): 227-40.

Ryan, Michael and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Sobchack, Vivian. "Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange." Camera Obscura 15 (1986): 7-34.
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Torry, Robert L. "Politics and Parousia in Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Literature/Film Quarterly 19.3 (1991): 188-196.

Williams, Tony. "Close Encounters of the Authoritarian Kind." Wide Angle 4.5 (1983): 23-29.