Article ID: JAF1909PT | By: Philip Tallon


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Steven Spielberg has made five movies featuring aliens: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., A.I., The War of the Worlds, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In the first two films, alien encounters are surprisingly beautiful and transformative1. In the last two, the aliens are more dangerous.2 The movie in the middle, A.I., which I’m not going to talk about after this sentence, presents aliens as benevolent demigods, but briefly at the end of the film.3 The only figures more central to Spielberg’s filmography are Nazis.4 This is not a coincidence. Spielberg is a master at grasping images and themes that are both universal and paramount (fitting since he’s worked extensively with Universal and Paramount production companies). As a fisher of meaning, Spielberg goes after the great whites. Plus, the guy just likes aliens; for that matter, so do the rest of us. Even if you don’t count movies set in space like Star Wars5 and Avatar,6 movies featuring aliens are big business. Men in Black7 and Independence Day8 were box office behemoths.9 But the really important alien movies are Spielberg’s first two: Close Encounters and E.T. Like Spielberg’s other early films Jaws10 and Raiders of the Lost Ark,11 these movies refined a B-movie genre into critically acclaimed gourmet popcorn. Close Encounters and E.T. raised the bar for cinematic science fiction. They also did something unusual, which few alien movies that followed, including Spielberg’s own, have attempted: the early alien movies function as moral metaphors. The encounters with aliens imaginatively exercise our hearts and minds, and may help to exorcise our worldly wisdom.12

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).

Notes: 

  1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by Steven Spielberg, Columbia Pictures, 1977. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Melissa Mathison, Universal Pictures, 1982.
  2. War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, Paramount Pictures, 2005. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by David Koepp, George Lucas, and Jeff Nathanson, Paramount Pictures, 2008.
  3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Brian Aldiss, Ian Watson, Steven Spielberg, Universal Pictures, 2001.
  4. Seen in such films by Spielberg as the dramas Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the action adventures Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
  5. Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, written and directed by George Lucas, Twentieth-Century Fox, 1977.
  6. Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron, Twentieth Century Fox, 2009.
  7. Men in Black, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, written by Ed Solomon, Sony Pictures, 1997.
  8. Independence Day, directed by Dean Devlin, written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.
  9. “Men in Black (1997),” IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119654/; as of August 23, 2019, cumulative worldwide gross was $589,390,539. “Independence Day (1996),” IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116629/; as of August 23,2019 cumulative world-wide gross was $817,400,891.
  10. Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, Universal Pictures, 1975.
  11. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Lawrence Kasdan, Paramount Pictures, 1981.
  12. The Bible often warns about “worldly wisdom,” which God regards as foolishness (1 Cor. 3:19). Our own age is prone to a kind of cynical and skeptical “wisdom” that prizes immediate practicality and selfish concern. Whether masquerading as hard-nosed materialism or therapeutic “self-care,” there is a kind of short-sighted individualism that Spielberg’s early movies emotionally rebuke. As I’ll show, these films help us to re-encounter the deeper truths that wonder and compassion are necessary movements of the soul. In this sense they help to (partially, at least) cast out the spirit of the age that beguiles all of us.
  13. War of the Worlds (2005).
  14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, Allied Artists Pictures, 1956; “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956),” AMC Filmsite, https://www.filmsite.org/inva.html/.
  15. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones offers a curious mix of both intellectual curiosity and hearty heroism. A two-fisted explorer, he’s often able to manage the dangers thrown at him, but just barely. Notably, in most of the Indiana Jones movies, it’s only Indiana’s awareness of his own fragility that saves him from disaster. Unlike the prideful villains Belloq and Spalko, Indiana knows when not to press beyond his limits. Faced with the truly sublime, however fascinating, Indy knows when to keep his eyes shut.
  16. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 982b. Cf. Plato, Theaetetus, 155d.
  17. Martha Nussbaum, “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion,” Social Philosophy and Policy, 13, 1 (1996): 27–58, Cambridge University Press, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0265052500001515.
  18. Julie Turnock, “The Auteur Renaissance, 1968–1980: Special/Visual Effects,” in Charlie Keil and Kristen Whissel, eds., Editing and Special/Visual Effects (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 123–125.
  19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1982.
  20. The Latin phrase means the mystery of the Holy that causes us to tremble and yet attracts us (see Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “Light and Darkness in the Mystical Theology of the Greek Fathers,” in Light from Light: Scientists and Theologians in Dialogue, ed. Gerald O’Collins and Mary Ann Meyers [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 140).
  21. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, chap. 13, sect. 1.
  22. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Spielberg has gone on record a number of times regretting his decision to have Roy leave his family to go off into space. This choice, he’s said, reflected a young man’s understanding of the world. But the film’s ending is the right one thematically, if not morally. As a metaphor for humanity’s search for the transcendent, his hero’s journey should end on the spaceship. For reference to Spielberg’s quote, see Joanna Ostrow, “Spielberg Opens up in TCM Documentary,” Denver Post, July 5, 2007, https://www.denverpost.com/2007/07/05/spielberg-opens-up-in-tcm-documentary/; Keith Phipps, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Slate, November 20, 2007, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/dvdextras/2007/11/close_encounters_of_the_third_kind.html.
  23. See Matthew 19:14; cf. 18:3.
  24. Pamela McClintock, “Steven Spielberg’s Top 10 Box Office Successes,” The Hollywood Reporter, June 17, 2015, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steven-spielberg-s-top-10-803126; Travis Clark, “All 30 Steven Spielberg Movies, Ranked by How Much Money They Made at the US Box Office,” Business Insider, March 27, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/all-steven-spielberg-movies-ranked-by-box-office-gross-2018-3.
  25. Kevin Coyne, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982),” Kevin Coyne Cinematographer, December 5, 2017, http://kevincoynedp.com/illumination/ettheextraterrestrial
  26. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982.
  27. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982.
  28. “Video: Roger Ebert on Empathy,” Roger Ebert.com, April 4, 2018 https://www.rogerebert.com/empathy/video-roger-ebert-on-empathy.
  29. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition, Box Set, directed by Steven Spielberg, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2017. Lussier, Germain, “Of Course Steven Spielberg Believes in Aliens”, Gizmodo, September 18, 2017, https://io9.gizmodo.com/of-course-steven-spielberg-believes-in-aliens-1818519987
  30. For instance, see James N. Anderson, “The Inescapability of God,” Christian Research Institute, December 7, 2018, https://www.equip.org/article/the-inescapability-of-god/.
  31. This was a common theme and mantra of Fox Mulder, who was a main character in the TV Series, The X-Files. It ran from 1993 to 2001, with additional seasons in 2015-2018. It also had two films in 1998 and 2008 with the 2008 title being The X Files: I Want to Believe. There was an iconic wall poster in the series of an alleged UFO hovering over tree with the statement at the bottom. See Ella Morton, “The X-Files ‘I Want to Believe’ Poster’s Origin Story,” The New Republic, December 29, 2015, https://newrepublic.com/article/126715/x-files-i-want-believe-posters-origin-story; Jesse Rhodes, “Q&A: Chris Carter of ‘The X Files,’” Smithsonian, July 16, 2008, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/qampa-chris-carter-of-the-x-files-1194526/?no-ist/.
  32. Cf. Guillermo Gonzalez, “Would Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Spell Doom for Christianity?” Christian Research Institute, April 16, 2018, https://www.equip.org/article/would-extraterrestrial-intelligent-life-spell-doom-for-christianity/.