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Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The UFO phenomenon

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A cinematic marvel that inspired directors of the sci-fi genre, this month marks forty years since the release of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was also an integral component of the American UFO and abduction phenomenon in the late 20th century, which significantly increased public awareness and interest in extraterrestrial existence.

Sightings of unidentified flying objects can be traced as far back as 500 B.C., but the culture surrounding UFOs and alien abductions we know today began in the early 1940s. In between the 40s and the 1977 release of Close Encounters, major events such as the Roswell Incident of ’47 and mysterious government projects (Project Sign, Project Grudge, and Project Blue Book) occurred.

The foundations laid by the invasion movies of the 1950s were also integral in creating mass hysteria and paranoia amongst movie-goers. Reflecting public fears and political themes, filmmakers explored the threat of nuclear warfare and infiltration of the Soviet Union through an alien invasion.

The combination of these events, secret projects and films heightened suspicions that the US government knew something that millions of citizens were unaware of. During the 1970s, numerous researchers within the UFO community began to compile witness accounts of encounters and abductions with extra-terrestrial beings.

Spielberg and Columbia Pictures had originally reached out to the US Air Force and NASA to provide their expertise, but both declined. It was rumored that NASA strongly advised Spielberg not to produce Close Encounters at all. In a 1978 interview with Cinema Papers, Spielberg stated: “I really found my faith when I heard that the government was opposed to the film. If NASA took the time to write me a 20-page letter, then I knew there must be something happening.

“I had wanted co-operation from them, but when they read the script, they got very angry and felt that it was a film that would be dangerous. I think they mainly wrote the letter because Jaws convinced so many people around the world that there were sharks in toilets and bathtubs, not just in the oceans and rivers. They were afraid the same kind of epidemic would happen with UFOs.”  

NASA was right to be worried, as the number of cases jumped from around 300 in 1985 to over 3.7 million in 1992 (via a Roper poll), that made many researchers believe that ‘the phenomenon [had now become] an epidemic.’ Both the fictitious narratives and the publicity surrounding abduction claims increased the accessibility of information to the public, even though they had fictitious origins.

Such was the case in 1975, when American logger Travis Walton claimed to have been abducted by a UFO in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona. Walton’s case became one of the best-known abduction stories in UFO culture and subsequently received mainstream publicity. The American public – especially skeptics – believed that Walton’s abduction was a hoax, and was derived in part from the film The UFO Incident (1975), which aired a few weeks before Walton’s claim.

The UFO Incident itself was the first adaptation of the famed 1969 abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. Their claim was also met with skepticism as their story bared resemblance to the 1953 movie Invaders from Mars.  It was this case that was the first to deal with a close encounter of the fourth kind.

From working titles Experiences, Watch the Skies to Kingdom Come, Spielberg eventually settled on Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the 1977 sci-fi epic. The title refers to the four-tier classificatory system created by American astronomer and ufologist J. Allen Hynek. Throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Hynek provided his expertise for the U.S. Air Force on the three famed government projects: Project Sign, Grudge and Blue Book. He would then go on to consult on Close Encounters, aiding Spielberg in research for the film.

The first three-tiers of ‘close encounters’ refer to a sighting of a UFO with no supporting evidence (CE1), a sighting supported by evidence (CE2) and direct contact between human and extraterrestrial (CE3). The fourth kind is an abduction, with one of the earliest claims occurring in 1957.

Spielberg chose the third kind and decided to spin audiences’ preconceptions on blood-thirsty, invading aliens to one of peace and harmony. Instead of running away from the impending invasion, those who have had previous encounters are drawn to Devils Tower, Wyoming – a site proposed by the aliens as a landing zone through a set of geographical coordinates. Once the mothership lands, the friendly aliens release animals and humans that they had previously abducted. The government prepares a group of people to greet and potentially go on the mothership, with protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) being picked by the extraterrestrials to travel with them across the universe.

With the exception of some terrifying alien encounters – Alien (1979), They Live (1988) Independence Day (1996) – Close Encounters of the Third Kind evolved the ‘50s paranoia of an impending Soviet Union invasion to that of hope and belief that humans weren’t the only living things in the universe.

At the turn of the 21st century, however, the threat of invasion loomed over America once again in the form of Islamic terrorism. The alien bliss that once dominated the box office turned into a dark, pessimistic, post 9/11 world where a fear of foreign and homegrown terrorists plagued the American subconscious. A world which Spielberg commented on through his 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds; a stark contrast to Close Encounters.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was re-released in cinemas in 4K Ultra HD for its 40th anniversary. A limited edition, 3-disc box set is available on Amazon.

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