Sensor Scan: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

“’You’re probably right, but that’s not what the public is expecting — this is Hollywood and I want to give people something that’s close to what they expect”

-Steven Spielberg to Jacques Vallée

It is named, of course, after J. Allen Hynek’s system of classification. Hynek was an astronomer who worked with the United States Air Force as a scientific consultant into their studies into the UFO phenomenon, most famously Project Blue Book. Initially a staunch skeptic, Hynek’s views began to change as he investigated more and more and more cases and it became less and less easy for him to discount the credibility of the witnesses he interviewed. After a falling out with the Air Force, Hynek spent the rest of his life investigating UFO cases on a personal basis, and is considering the pioneer of scientific research into UFOs. His famous scale is as follows, in order of increasing high strangeness:

  • Nocturnal Lights: Sightings of unexplained lights in the night sky.
  • Daylight Discs: Sightings of disc-shaped objects during the daytime.
  • Radar-Visual: Confirmed radar hits.
  • Close Encounters of the First Kind: A UFO observed less than 500 feet away.
  • Close Encounters of the Second Kind: A UFO, sighted less than 500 feet away, with a seemingly discernible physical effect.
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind: A UFO sighted less than 500 feet away, accompanied by sightings of animated beings.

That Steven Spielberg named a movie after Hynek’s scale (not to mention casting Hynek himself as an extra in the climactic meeting with the Mothership, along with UFOlogist Stanton Friedman, famous for his interest in the Roswell case) is well known for being the impetus for it becoming ingrained in pop consciousness. But it also reveals the extent to which Close Encounters of the Third Kind is genuinely indebted to a specific philosophy: Friedman’s presence aside, this is not actually a movie about UFOlogy. Indeed, ironically in spite of his influence on the field, Hynek was not what we’d think of today as a UFOlogist and the work he did would likely be met with some suspicion, if not outright scorn, in modern UFOlogy.

No, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie about spiritualism, childhood, wonder, and the sacred music of the universe. And that makes it pretty much the single most important and powerful work we’ve looked at so far.

Steven Spielberg, as a creative figure, is often criticized for his fixation on a somewhat vapid notion of “childlike wonder”, and there is something to that. Spielberg has always privileged the child’s perspective (or what he perceives a child’s perspective to be) and does seem to feel there’s something genuinely special about the way children see the world. And certainly it can be argued that starting with E.T. he begins to dutifully recite these themes as comfortable platitudes film after film. But, in regards to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in particular, two things really need to be established early on: One, though this is Spielberg’s first post-Jaws work, he’s still something of an up-and-coming filmmaker coasting on the latter film’s success.…

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