To analyze Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you have to understand what exactly this ‘Third Kind’ is. Is it a type of fruit? Maybe a strain disease? Or perhaps even the latter third of some mysterious trio? Spielberg leads you to believe that it’s a degree of exposure you can have with an extra-terrestrial. And while this may be true, I think the director had serious ulterior meanings during the conception of this film.
The Third Kind is more than just a foreign organism. It’s an ideal.
Now, one might ask: what are the adults looking to be saved from?
The two adult leads in the film, Roy and Ronnie, are dysfunctional. They are miles away from taking that last step to enlightenment. Their constant bickering is indicative of any rocky marriage, however, it’s the elements that surround these characters that truly define them.
Their lives are saturated in violence and commercialism. One might point out the incredible banquet of junk overflowing in their house; a hallmark of all-American decadence, but the writing is written far more subtly on the movie’s philosophical wall.
An initial look at their house sees children smashing toys and parents arguing over where to put their pointless stuff. When TVs are turned on, they’re flipped to fear-mongering newscasts covering dangerous gas spills and army rail accidents, Looney Tune characters with rifles, and commercials selling you on the next big brew from Budweiser. In the beginning of the film, the camera makes sure to linger on the neon of a moonlit McDonalds, humanity’s own version of a glowing spaceship. When Roy and Ronnie make their way to the army encampment at the end of the film, they witness merchants harking gas masks in an attempt to make a buck through hysteria and the growing war economy. Adults do not understand many of the things they create. So, they hope to fill their lives with products to cope with this misunderstanding**. But ultimately, this only serves to pollute their existence and grease the wheels of commercialism.
This is all in sharp contrast to the third kind, the aliens. They have an advantage in that they are from the outside looking in. They see the Earth and humanity as a blue marble rather than storage for humans and their various possessions. The aliens are the definition of peace and minimalism. Their spaceships float around like bumblebees, splaying their orange lights (a colour which symbolizes joy and enthusiasm). They never hurt a soul, and they send these happy-go-lucky jingles through the airwaves . Even if they do cause a bit of household disruption, they don’t leave without putting on some joyful record. These beings are tranquil, so much in fact that they can even attract the attention of children with their understanding of toys and strange ability to understand the malleability of the young mind. And you know what they say: children see the truth in every situation. The truth to take from all this is that these aliens are benevolent.
They are what humanity strives to encounter and possess. Cutting edge, world-crossing technology. Impeccable taste in music. Efficient methods of communication. A sense of restraint in their design and attitude. An otherworldly understanding of children. Another perspective on the goal for peace. That’s why the adults work so hard to encounter these perfect beings. When I was looking at screen caps of the movie, I noticed how dark it was. Huge chunks of the film are engulfed in the black of night, lit with the light of the third kind and of humanity. The former of which is trying desperately to enlighten the latter, both physically and figuratively.
It’s all one big movie about humanity and its attempt to slough off all its societal baggage and to advance as a people. The Third Kind is a living being, yes, but also a state of mind.
When we finally reach the end of the movie, Roy approaches the spaceship bathed in a sea of angelic light. Humanity’s finally done it. They’ve had their close encounter with what? Enlightenment. Nirvana. Will they take anything from it? Maybe, maybe not. In a world that emphasizes looking rather than seeing, they may all just walk away remembering how pretty the lights were. Nevertheless, when Roy steps inside, I still think it adds a whole new meaning to the whole “One small step for man…” quote.
**Throughout the movie, Roy and Ronnie are bombarded with mental images of the mountain. However, instead of buying an answer like how capitalism trained them to, they instead make art (sketches and sculptures) to understand what’s being projected. This is a much healthier state of mind, and one that’s perhaps influenced by the aliens. After all, couldn’t they just look it up in a book? Or maybe seek out a therapist like a normal person?