Close Encounters of the Divine Kind

In 1977, right between the release of Jaws and E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While by no means a box office failure or small art film, Close Encounters stands apart from its immediate siblings in the Spielberg canon. Cerebral, almost mystical, and with next to no exposition, Close Encounters feels more like the viewer is experiencing the plot along with the characters in real time rather than being told a story on a screen. It is also one of the most effective calls to reverence in secular storytelling.

Close Encounters follows the story of Roy Neary, a blue-collar worker in rural Indiana. On an unusual late-night call about a power outage, Roy gets lost on country backroads and witnesses something that he cannot explain. Nearby mailboxes shake and crash together, the electricity shuts off in his car, and his face is partially burned by impossibly bright lights that appear out of nowhere. After this bizarre incident, Roy rushes home and tries to show his wife and children what he saw. While Roy is convinced he’s seen a UFO, his wife begins to suspect he’s gone crazy. His actions become increasingly erratic as he grows obsessed with the image of a mountain that appears to have been planted in his mind. The rest of the film follows Roy as he is eventually drawn to seek out Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, recognizing it as the image from his vision. He teams up with Jillian, whose toddler son Barry was taken by the aliens, and together they witness the consummate encounter with the aliens in the arrival of the mothership. What follows is the closest encounter yet: the aliens exit their ship and interact with the humans.

While all the people who have been taken by the aliens return unharmed, a team of human volunteers prepare to enter the ship themselves. The aliens appear to choose Roy (and Roy alone), and he leaves with them on the mothership. Depending on which edition you watch, the endings differ slightly. The original cut of the movie follows Roy into the ship, showing its bizarre interior. Spielberg’s later “director’s cut” edition removes this scene entirely, leaving the inside of the ship to the viewer’s imagination. While the entire movie is visually striking and accompanied by an award-winning John Williams score, the last 20 minutes of the film, in which the mothership descends, are truly mystical and almost religious in the awe they inspire.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie about humans interacting with an intelligence other than our own, even beyond our own. We’re not told anything about presumed or real motives for these aliens (unlike Arrival), and no one is trying to capture the aliens to study them (unlike E.T.), but it is clear that they are profoundly different from us (unlike Interstellar). Close Encounters offers a secular meditation on theophany—when humans meet with God.

The people who meet the aliens share striking similarities with the Biblical accounts. They bear a sunburn-like mark from the intensity of the spaceships’ headlights. They are all inextricably drawn to certain places—first the bend in the road where they hope to catch a second glimpse of the ships, but soon to Devil’s Tower, where (unbeknownst to them) the U.S. military is setting up a base to contact the aliens. Curiously, those who see the alien ships describe them primarily in terms of beauty and awe rather than dread or terror. Music is one of the primary ways the aliens communicate. Rather than frightening, this music is playful and inspires delight in both the humans and aliens. In one of the opening scenes, two scientists interview a local man who has just encountered the aliens and witnessed the bizarre return of missing planes from 1945. Via the translator, we learn, “He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.” Do brilliant lights, music, and a sense of awe not sound similar to the announcement of the angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth, the ultimate “close encounter”?

“No man can see me and live.” Thus saith the LORD as he hides Moses in the cleft of the rock to protect him from his divine presence (Exodus 33:20–23). This can feel a bit strange to those of us who grew up asking God to come into our hearts. In the Old Testament, however, theophany (seeing God face-to-face) is always a consummate moment in the life of the one witnessing him. Adam and Eve try to hide from God on his evening walk through the garden, and they end up with a curse and an eviction notice. Moses talks to the burning bush, and he goes from a shepherd in the wilderness to the leader of his people. Jacob wrestles with God, and he forevermore walks with a limp. When humans meet with God, they cannot leave unchanged.

As the mothership descends (looking strikingly like a city—significant, considering the original title of the movie was Kingdom Come), the scientists react in a number of ways. Some kneel. Some flee. At least one man runs for the bathroom. Jillian, the first to see the ship, whispers under her breath, “Oh my God.” Though certainly not the climax of the scene, this brief moment captures the essence of it. Like Hagar in the wilderness giving the God she’s encountered a name—“you are El Roi, the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13)—Jillian’s utterance is perhaps the most appropriate response to the power that has just revealed itself.

During the COVID pandemic, the church I attended as a college student was closed for months on end. Once I grew tired of online services, I started occasionally attending Latin Mass at a local Catholic church, mostly because, to quote Norm Macdonald, “the light was on.” It was an entirely different world than I was used to. Even though I couldn’t partake of the sacrament there, I left each time with a sense that I had just experienced something profoundly other. It was something with an enormous “breadth and length and height and depth,” in Paul’s words (Ephesians 3:18)—something holy. Somehow, this ’70s sci-fi movie captures that feeling of awe and reverence better than any other film I’ve seen. Close Encounters explores the human yearning to experience something outside ourselves. The outside Power who truly comes down to meet with us isn’t sinister or even morally ambiguous, but deeply devoted to loving us.

Author: Cameron Hughes

Cameron Hughes grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and studied Church Music at Carson-Newman University in East Tennessee. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works in campus ministry at UC Berkeley. Cameron enjoys reading, music, and making as many things as possible from scratch in the kitchen.

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