Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Weird Wednesdays: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

It’s the same kind of story
That seems to come down from long ago
Two friends having coffee together
When something flies by their window
It might be on that lawn
Which is wide, at least half of a playing field
Because there’s no explaining what your imagination
Can make you see and feel”

“Hypnotized” by Fleetwood Mac

Although the term “flying saucer” was coined back in 1947, the 1970s were a booming time of UFO activity –at least, a lot of people were seeing strange things in the sky. Maybe because so many social mores were easing, people may have felt more inclined to report such unusual experiences. A person wasn’t automatically assumed to be a drunk or crazy because they claimed to have seen a flying saucer. Certainly, the subject of UFOs, ancient astronauts, and even encounters with alien beings had become part of the popular culture. It was not unusual to see aliens depicted in comic books, television shows, and movies.

Of all the 1970s media depictions of UFOs and alien beings, certainly the most prominent would have been the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind by film-maker Steven Spielberg. This big-budget movie, released in 1977 – the same year as Star Wars – was accurate in many details regarding supposed sightings of UFOs. It approached the subject with two storylines that eventually intertwined, one about investigators seeking out clues to the UFO mystery, and the other about ordinary people whose sightings have dramatically altered their lives. Spielberg was nominated for Best Director by the Academy Awards for the film, and it did win the award for Best Cinematography.

The early encounters with the UFOs are almost directly pulled from the news reports of the day. When lineman Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss) encounters a multi-colored craft at a dark, deserted railroad crossing, his truck’s engine dies, and nearby metal mailboxes begin to shudder. Suddenly, his entire cab seems to experience a moment of zero gravity, as objects go flying about! He looks out of his window right into the brilliant light flooding the area, and later develops a sunburn. But as soon as the UFO departs, all returns to normal, and his engine re-starts.

This sort of scene was described by many people who claimed to have encounters with UFOs, so Spielberg (who also wrote the film) obviously did his homework. His attention to detail is also evident in the way the UFOs are presented: they are of varying shapes and sizes, all with multiple colored lights, and capable of performing amazing aerial acrobatics. Again, this is all consistent with eyewitness accounts of the time.

But the film falters at the end, when the aliens make contact with a group of government scientists. As is typical with so many Spielberg films, we get a very saccharine happy ending slapped on. The aliens come down, return people they’d kidnapped (in some cases, decades prior), and then take on board their ship a group of willing volunteers. The head alien smiles at everyone and all is sweetness and light.

This is dramatically different than most reports of alien encounters up to that time. Possibly the most famous early 70s encounter was that of Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1973. The two men were fishing one evening when they claimed that a UFO set down near the river and three creatures emerged. The beings seemed to glide rather than walk, and they had a distinctly inhuman appearance. Hickson claimed that they were given some sort of medical exam on the ship and then released (for more info on the case, see the wiki article:

The real take home point of this is that whatever these men think happened to them, it terrified them. It was not a happy experience! The same can be said for most people who claimed to meet aliens. But Spielberg can’t help himself – he has to give us that happy ending, no matter what. This is, after all, the man who gave us the drippy E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Decades later, he would make a very different film about aliens: a remake of the classic War of the Worlds. But even with this film, with its invading aliens and massive destruction, our hero at the end returns home to find that his missing son is alive and well, despite disappearing in the middle of a warzone!

Close Encounters is an interesting film, well worth seeing if you have an interest in the UFO phenomenon. Just ignore the sweet little aliens at the end!

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