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Aliens have often been used to represent social troubles. Spielberg’s own The War of the Worlds with its dust-covered survivors evokes traumatized New Yorkers on 9/11. “What is it? Is it terrorists?” Ray Ferrier’s (Tom Cruise’s) son asks after the first attack: a question many Americans were asking in those days.13 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been read both as a warning about McCarthyism and as a warning about covert Communism.14 The aliens of later Spielberg serve largely as compelling threats or cosmic maguffins. In The War of the Worlds, they are undone by the bacteria humans have grown resistant to. Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier, a brusk and inattentive father functions a bit more like a Darwinian hero, a member of a resilient species the aliens underestimate. Close Encounters and E.T. play with subtler and more lasting concerns.15 Though not much of a philosopher himself, Spielberg’s movies repeatedly return to a theme more fundamental than many of his A-list peers ever consider: the basic necessity of wonder and compassion.
Here’s where it might help to explain why I’m writing about two movies almost nobody is talking about nowadays. The answer is simple. These movies are good for the soul and more people should watch them (or rewatch them). Two of the best reasons for art criticism is to get people to watch the good stuff and to help them see why it’s good. This may seem a bit obvious, but the most important things in life are usually obvious. People need to be reminded more than they need to be taught. Aristotle said that all philosophy begins in wonder.16 Martha Nussbaum has said that compassion is the basic social emotion.17 Close Encounters and E.T. remind us of the value of wonder and compassion. Close Encounters helps us encounter wonder a bit more closely, and E.T. makes our hearts extra tender, but both films do both things. Like Elliot and E.T., they’re psychically linked. The rest of this piece is little more than me pressing you to watch these films for the first time, or again, and then again.
Close Encounters feels at times like a walking contradiction. It’s one of the most effects-heavy blockbusters of the 1970s,18 yet it also feels like a small, experimental film. It’s a movie about intergalactic contact that’s grounded in very personal family struggles. It’s also more impressionistic than any other Spielberg feature: heavy on tone and light on plot. The first scene kinetically rushes between busy government officials as they scramble around in the midst of a sandstorm, eventually coming upon a squadron of WW2-era planes, still in perfect condition. We learn a bit about some key characters, a bit about the strange spaceship that dropped off the planes, a “singing sun,” but mostly we just bathe in the strangeness and mystery of it all. Translation beguiles every step of the story. Everyone is speaking a different language. Like the French translator in the film, Laughlin (Bob Balaban), we “don’t understand” precisely what’s happening. Unlike Laughlin, however, the audience’s experience of the strangeness of it all is immensely pleasurable.19
Spielberg’s film functions as a kind of cinematic dance of many veils, teasing the audience with the eventual otherworldly reveal, whose primary purpose is not to explain any of the strange events, per se, but rather to deepen the sense of strangeness: stars disengage from the sky and fall to earth as tiny spaceships, clouds appear from nowhere, and a gargantuan mothership miraculously rises from behind Devil’s Tower. The sublime spectacle rides the line between the terrifying and the beautiful. Led by the curious and humane French scientist Lacombe (François Trauffaut), American scientists tap out the five tones that seem to embed themselves in the minds of those who encounter the aliens. The mothership responds, blasting out music so loud it shatters industrial glass, but the music is majestic. Some days I am inclined to think that no filmmaker has come closer to capturing what Rudolf Otto called the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”20
The experience of these sublime and strange close encounters, of course, acts as a moral test for the characters in the film. Efficient government agents work to control information about and access to the aliens, but the aliens will not be controlled. What they want is not diplomatic relations but rather close relationship. To cross the boundary of communication, however, fundamental childlike wonder is necessary.
In an early scene, a young child sees the alien ships in the sky. Rather than being frightened, he is drawn to them. Seeing the candy-colored lights in the sky, he cries out, “Toys!” Later in the movie, when we encounter the aliens themselves, many so closely resemble children that the point is made even more clear. The only way to cross the distance between human and alien is to return to the most essential elements of the human experience. Cinema is basically just sound and light in motion. Close Encounters plays with sound and light and motion more effectively than nearly any other movie I can think of. Its story could be largely understood by a non-English speaker without subtitles. This is intentional. As one government agent observes, when encountering the mother ship, “It’s the first day of school, fellas.” Though I’m certain that Spielberg did not have The Institutes in mind, John Calvin’s observation that God “baby talks” to us works as well for divine revelation as it does for alien contact.21
The film’s hero, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a father with the chubby build and hobbies of a child, is one of the chosen ones who has eyes to see and ears to hear. Following strange visions, he has to overcome the practical skepticism of his grounded wife, who cares only what the neighbors think and when the next paycheck is coming.22 Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those like children.23 For Spielberg, the heavens belong to the young at heart.
Here Close Encounters crosses over thematically to E.T., one of Spielberg’s biggest financial successes.24 E.T. can almost be seen as a spinoff from Close Encounters, a short story that amplifies a particular theme within his earlier epic. While Roy Neary’s own children seem immune to his own childlike fascinations (they want to play goofy-golf instead of watching Pinocchio), the children in E.T., bruised by their parents’ divorce, have big hearts that yearn for connection. Shot with low camera angles and intimate two-shots,25 E.T. zooms fully into the vulnerable realities of domestic life. E.T. the alien, like the main character, Elliot, has been isolated. As the film begins, we see Elliot vainly trying to shoulder his way into his big brother’s game night. Sent out to get the pizza, Elliot discovers a kindred spirit, the abandoned alien.26
Just as Close Encounters treads the line between the sublime and the beautiful, the creature design of E.T. straddles the line between being grotesque and cute. His dumpy torso, wrinkled skin, and pressed-ham cranium provoke initial fright, but his glowing organs and sensitive eyes eventually draw us (and the film’s children) in. In Close Encounters, only the open-minded are receptive to the alien message. In E.T., the open-hearted and lowly are chosen to shame the worldly-wise. E.T. evades notice from Elliot’s mother because of her own stressed and busy single-parent concerns. Powerful government scientists are at first unable to find E.T., and are eventually unable to save him. After E.T.’s eventual capture by the government, we see doctors vainly try to stabilize the sickly and dying alien. Only a child’s intuitive connection can revive E.T.
As with Close Encounters, Spielberg doesn’t simply idolize childhood. Elliot’s mother, a sensitive soul, comes around to his side. Further, a government agent reaches out to Elliot, showing that, like Roy Neary, wonder doesn’t have to give way to adulthood. “I’ve been wishing for this since I was 10 years old,” the agent says, “What can we do that we’re not already doing?” The answer is a painful one for Elliot, since the only solution is to send E.T. back to his family. The film’s final scene tests our emotional reserve. Tearfully saying goodbye, E.T.’s glowing finger points to Elliot’s head as he says, “I’ll be…right…here.”27
The late, great Roger Ebert called movies “empathy machines.”28 This isn’t true of all films, but it is of this one. Deeply so. E.T. is so powerful that it hurts. Literally, the movie is so moving that my kids often don’t want to watch it. They don’t want to have to go through those soaring highs and woeful lows again. I sometimes feel the same way. I can sit through two hours of non-stop violence without flinching, watching John Wick or the Fast & Furious family break bones and snap necks, but E.T.’s tender and peaceful goodbye makes my heart go “ouch.” For those of us hardened to the ways of the world, it’s more painful to watch unfiltered compassion than it is to watch unrelenting combat.
I must confess that I’m much more skeptical than Spielberg about UFO sightings or the existence of intelligent aliens in the universe. The director has claimed he believes in aliens a number of times throughout his career, even recently. “I still believe we’re not alone in the universe,” he said on the bonus materials for a re-release of Close Encounters.29 Even as a child, those who eagerly sought after aliens seemed to me to be searching for an immanent transcendence, something big to believe in to give added meaning to the physical universe.30 Because I believe that we’re not alone in the universe for different reasons, I don’t have Fox Mulder’s pressing “want” to believe.31 Nor do I think that the worldwide success and lasting value of Spielberg’s best alien movies is due to widespread belief in extraterrestrial life. Instead, Close Encounters and E.T. touch on a deeper need.32 Alien encounters make for bad conspiracy theories but good metaphors. They fail as facts but work as dreams. They remind us of the painful struggle, paramount importance, and universal need to connect up and out.
Philip Tallon (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. He’s the author of The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2011) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith