May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 6, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think)
The thrill of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and what ultimately makes it a seminal film of modern American spirituality, is the way it drills down through religious experience and finds a character both mythic and contemporary. He is mythic in the sense that his experience is common – he is a convenient caricature of all who have been lulled by the wonder of religious experience. He is contemporary in the sense that his path of spirituality leads through a number of pop-cultural fascinations with aliens and government conspiracies – the secularization of traditional Judeo-Christian images of revelation and heaven. Roy Neary is as close as the American cinema had gotten to its own Moses or Elijah, a character that led us up the mountain to an unprecedented special effects revelation and then vanished in a whirlwind of CGI, taken up into the glory of Spielberg’s version of transcendence.
Roy as a mythic figure has a lot in common with the end of 2001, a point at which Close Encounters becomes an exposition of spirituality no longer connected to traditional concepts of divinity, but now linked to a science-fictional appreciation of outer space and its possible inhabitants as metaphors for the evolution of man. At this point we could easily wander off into the great debate between science and theology, Close Encounters being a text that could be closely read as a parable of modernity. But at the end of the day, it’s a Pilgrim’s Progress for those whose religious imagination is formed by Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
As a figure of contemporary spirituality, which is a term so broad that it is just shy of meaningless, Roy is a precursor to the X-Files bait and switch in which traditional concepts of divinity get transposed with a numinous idea of the “unknown” that reveals itself in fleeting glimpses of aliens and monsters. In 1950’s science fiction aliens were anti-religious figures – menacing, dominating, little regard for nature or capitalism (Russians, basically). In the 70’s they became more abstract, secularized versions of angels that in the Jewish and Christian traditions are connected with revelation and the presence of God. Through what Rosenbaum calls “dopey Hollywood mysticism,” all traditional Judeo-Christian ideas have similar analogues in Roy’s pioneering journey. Early in the film a young boy accepts his alien abduction with childlike faith. Marked like Moses coming down from Sinai, Roy’s Damascus experience with the alien ships leaves his head half-sunburned, implanted with a recurring image that leads him to Devil’s Tower. The construction of this image out of mud and trash in his living room is referenced by an earlier glimpse of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments on the television. Forsaking career and family he makes pilgrimage to the tower in spite of a litany of Pilgrim’s Progress-like hurdles, including a gas of sleepiness. By faith he makes his way through a wilderness littered with animals seemingly dead from “accidentally released nerve gas,” which turns out to actually have been the aforementioned sleeping gas. On the mountain top he tells his companion to leave and not look back, as Lot’s wife, and makes his way down to the landed alien ship. An antiphonal liturgy of tones is recited. Finally, he stands like Ezekiel before an ophanic space chariot, and like Elijah or Enoch is taken up into the ineffable. In a later version of the film, Speilberg extended the ending so that we get a glimpse of the heavenly interior of the ship, an attempt to further visualize the end of Roy’s journey as an afterlife analogue. In this version the process by which all these Jewish and Christian references are steadily replaced by Roy becomes clear – the aliens are the culmination of Roy’s religious script, overwriting all of its references with technology, self-revelation, and a vivid sense of universal connectedness. Roy’s journey is not just contemporary in its use of aliens and government conspiracies as metaphor of faith, but it espouses a mysticism that is only possible now that we have the special effects technology to actually produce it. It is a mysticism only possible in the cinema. As this is the case, its value vanishes with the CGI – its heaven only accessible by DVD.