Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind

When CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the THIRD KIND came out in 1977 even the title caught us by surprise.  The first kind of “close encounter” was what had been reported occasionally in the public media since the 1950’s— the spotting of a UFO, an “unidentified flying object”. The very term “unidentified” meant there was no way to confirm absolutely that such sightings were of alien or “extraterrestrial” origin.  They were simply lights seen in the sky that could have been aircraft, or weather balloons, or odd meteorological disturbances. For instance, it was often suggested that such sightings of high-flying, fast moving lights were simply the reflection of some bright lights originating on earth being reflected in the upper atmosphere.

The very fact  that we now have in our modern vocabulary the term UFO confirms that in the popular imagination at least, there now exists the possibility that Earth is being visited by aliens in spacecraft.

This isn’t a completely modern idea, either. The author Erich Von Daniken in his book Chariots of the Gods ( a movie was made of the book  in 1970 ) suggested that many of the strange phenomenon recorded in ancient religious texts and cave drawings were the records of sightings of such spacecraft.

But such “sightings” could only be designated “close encounters of the FIRST kind.”

A “first kind” of encounter meant only the possibility of aliens as the explanation behind strange atmospheric disturbances. The “second” kind of “close encounter” would be something more substantial than a flash of light, or a photograph of some unidentifiable object in the sky. It would mean some actual evidence of extraterrestrial visitation— the photo of an actual spacecraft, some actual alien artefact, the legitimate testimony of a reliable group of witnesses. Something that would confirm that these “unidentified flying objects” could legitimately be identified as actual alien spacecraft. To date, there has never been such a “close encounter of the second kind ”— at least we do not have on display  in some museum something that could be labelled as “ABSOLUTE PROOF THAT EARTH HAS BEEN VISITED BY ALIENS.”

And so an “encounter of the third kind” would be actual contact.  That’s what Steven Spielberg’s film was all about. A fictional account of what it would be like if we earthlings finally encountered aliens.

The idea is so compelling, of course, because actual contact would confirm that we are not alone in the universe. That’s what the character Ellie Arroway, in the film of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, says so poignantly in her testimony before the American Congressional Committee in Washington,DC, after her perilous flight to the center of the Galaxy:


   “I had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… a vision… of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are not—that none of us —are alone!


Why is it so necessary that we discover that we are not alone in the universe? Why we are drawn to films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind  and Contact like moths around a flame?

Because we are drawn by an inner light to seek the answer for the ultimate  question —(as Trinity asks Neo in The Matrix— “what is the Matrix?”  The Matrix is Wachowski-speak for reality.)              

      What is REALITY?  What is existence? What is life FOR? Why are we here? The question drives us to find an answer. (At least those of us not constantly  jaded by pleasures and distractions. Those of us who have the question always in the back of our minds.)

In 1977 I was 28 years old. I’d already been married 9 years. My young wife and I went to see Close Encounters in the local theatre, and when it was over we were enthralled. Why? Because when we compared notes, we discovered that the film stirred up some pretty amazing thoughts and emotions. I remember saying, “I know this film  is FICTION, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a premonition of something still to come. Some day we are going to get confirmation that we are not alone in the universe, and that will make all the difference in the world.”




     But why would it make a difference?  Because then life would be BIGGER than just rush-hour traffic, mortgage payments, the rat-race, the constant struggle of working to eat and eating to work, the daily grind of bad news on the doorstep, the ever-present evidence of people suffering, and aging, and dying. Surely there has to be more than this, an explanation for what Gerald Manley Hopkins describes in his poem God’s Grandeur  (1877)  “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” — and as Agent Smith rants at Morpheus in The Matrix:  “ I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.”  

     The very fact that I hear this from a Christian poet who wrote it 130 years ago,  and a hip young science fiction writer in 1999,  tells me I’m not the only one who’s noticed the human condition is far from perfect. Something is wrong with the human race— and I suppose we are instinctively hoping that  some other  inhabitants somewhere in  the Universe can help set us right. “Maybe,” we say, “They’ll have immortality, or an inexhaustible energy source, or an utopian civilization, or a cure for all diseases, or a cure for war — or a good answer for that perennial, nagging  question, ‘what is the ultimate purpose for existence?’”

It’s the questions that drive us.

And Close Encounters is the story of some characters that followed up and chased the questions until they got a final, definitive answer— and I think that’s what drove us. We suspected there would be a final answer to some of these questions,  and we just kept looking until we found it.

What about you?

Are you still looking?

My challenge to you is to follow the leads…follow the paper trail…follow the clues —the kind that led an Indiana electrical lineman (Roy Neary)  to be one of the first human beings to make actual contact with aliens.