If you’re old enough to remember the marketing campaign for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then you’ll remember the goosebumps you got when you heard the phrase, “We Are Not Alone.”
That simple sentence was great because it promised a movie about aliens that was about wonder and mystery. Not the same old Hollywood treatment of life in the universe, namely, that if it bothered to interact with humans it was for a nefarious reason. As in everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to War of the Worlds to the later Independence Day.
Twenty years after Close Encounters came another film that promised to make first contact a matter of humanity’s growth out of the cradle and not some intergalactic cage match. Both Close Encounters and Contact were aliens for smart people brought to you first by the immense talent of Steven Spielberg and later by the immense intellect of Carl Sagan. In my Hollywood career, I’ve had the good fortune to discuss UFOs and extraterrestrial life with both of these men and found them to have some very different visions of the subject. They have each used film to express their views about life as it might exist “out there.” Two questions in play here: 1) which version comes closest to what might be the truth about first contact and 2) which one is the better film?
Contact (the movie) directed by Robert Zemeckis is a faithful film adaption of Contact (the novel) written by Carl Sagan. In both tellings, radio astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster in the film) hits the cosmic jackpot when the giant radio telescopes that are part of S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) actually turn up a non-random signal from across the universe. Someone is talking to us or, more accurately, talking back. You see, they’ve picked up the very first television transmission the Earth ever leaked outward, amped it up and sent it back to us. It’s an excellent surprise and — without spoiling it — let’s just say that the first TV signal that went out from Earth is, well, unexpected.
After that, the story kicks into where no film has really gone before. There’s another signal buried in that TV re-transmission that is, basically, the blueprints for building a gigantic spacecraft… for one person! Well, if there was ever a situation designed to stretch our humanity to the breaking point, it would be trying to determine who’s going to be that lucky (or, in failure, unlucky) person. Where will they go? Will they ever return? Will they die? Is it some kind of trick?
Actually, the idea that this message from space could be some kind of trick is the part that feels familiar. The film uses James Woods and Angela Bassett as a couple of super-skeptical presidential advisors who question the motives behind the message and, even if that turns out to be wrong-headed, seem determined to play the nationalistic card to get the seat for the U.S.A. It’s not that this reaction might not occur on some level but it does feel forced and like an extension of every awful ’50s flying saucer film. On the other hand, the film makes up for this with lots of other really interesting characters — from religious leaders to hermitic billionaires — who talk about incredible topics usually not discussed in film, like God, as an example.
My own personal encounter with Carl Sagan took place in the 1980s, right after he’d become a public super-star with his “Cosmos” series on PBS. I was an investigative reporter for the local PBS affiliate here in Los Angeles and space reporting was one of my beats. I’d covered the early shuttle flights (launch at Cape Canaveral, landing here at Edwards AFB) and now the unmanned program was about to get the action with the Voyager fly-by of Saturn. Sagan was a major part of a network documentary we did on it, “Saturn and Beyond,” and he was a guest in the studio for a live discussion as JPL began assembling pictures from the fly-by. By the way, Sagan was also the man who got NASA to include cameras on those journeys to his never-ending credit. I mean, in retrospect, who would ever have thought to take a pass on letting us take a look for ourselves?
On the air, we talked about the Saturn encounter but out in the parking lot we talked about extra-terrestrial intelligence. I didn’t know a lot about UFOs at the time so I wasn’t as aggressive or prepared as I would be today. With that persuasive charm and cocky self-assurance, he argued two extreme positions. First, he said, the Universe was literally teeming with life (remember “billions and billions”) and there were — at minimum — hundreds of millions of intelligent civilizations out there, almost all of which were a lot smarter than we were. Then he argued, just as passionately, that they could not possibly be here as UFOs. The distances were too great for space travel like that, and the physics were just too unyielding and impossible. Sagan was one of the very early adopters of the idea that if we wanted to talk to E.T. it would have to be through a radio telescope and, thus, he became the man with the plan: S.E.T.I.
Sagan died in 1996, before it was his time. I miss him for his intelligence, of course, and his advocacy of space exploration. Yet, on the subject of first contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence, I’d like to be able to take a second crack at that discussion because, knowing what I know now, I would strongly want to challenge his opinions. He always was fond of saying that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Well, from my perspective, there seems to be a lot less proof that aliens want to talk by radio and a lot more that they prefer to come see for themselves.
Read the post, Carl Sagan: They’re Everywhere But Here
The Defending Champion
Close Encounters of the Third Kind took a winding path to get to the screen and, even after it was done in 1977, director Steven Spielberg nearly re-made it in 1980 and took another crack at it in 1998. For the entire history, your best bet is to read the Wikipedia article which is as good an explanation as I’ve ever read. The short version is that the first version was the rushed studio version, the second version was the one he wanted to make with scenes added and subtracted and a view inside the ship, and the third version was a minor re-cut except that he took out the inside of the ship and went back to the original ending.
The film itself, in all three of its evolutionary revisions, is about explaining UFOs as extra-terrestrial spacecraft, and aliens as beings who are interested in starting a conversation with humankind but haven’t gotten the memo from sci-fi writers that they’re supposed to land on the White House lawn (or even blow up the White House and forget about the lawn).
It tracks two simultaneous roads to contact. The official road is through the government. Apparently, these creatures have beamed us a set of numbers which turn out to be latitude/longitude coordinates (why they use base-10 and know how to divide the globe up the way we do, I’m not sure) that pinpoint a location for contact as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. At the same time, though, the aliens have also imprinted this information in the minds of a collection of average people, most notably, for the film, in the mind of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an Indiana electrician.
The film is the journey of the Dreyfuss character from fear to awe. In between, he ends up looking like a complete lunatic to his family because he has a vision implanted in his brain of Devil’s Tower. He bonds with the other observers of these UFOs, then goes on a mission to the point of contact where he gets to go-ahead to get on the ship because he’s been “invited.”
I’ve had a few “close encounters” with Steven Spielberg over the years. As chairman of the TV Academy, I actually got to sit next to him at the Emmys when he won one for Band of Brothers. More importantly to this Smackdown, in 1991, I developed a UFO TV series for his Amblin’ Entertainment company called Sightings (before the reality show also used that title). We pitched it to all four networks and were turned down (go figure).
Then, after I’d done Dark Skies for NBC in 1996-97, I was hired as co-executive producer of Taken and developed that project in 1999 with friends Les Bohem, Manny Coto, Toni Graphia and Rich Whitley. As it turned out, the series got put on hold and when it was re-scheduled for production in 2001, Les was the sole producer/writer. As an aside, when Taken finally aired, it had plenty of connections to Dark Skies. The pilot had input from me. It was produced by my Dark Skies producer Steve Beers. It was directed by our Dark Skies pilot director Tobe Hooper. And finally, it starred our Dark Skies lead Eric Close in the main role of the Roswell alien.
But the point is, those two projects (Sightings/Taken) let me hear Spielberg’s take on the phenomena. I’ll say this much. There’s been a lot of wild speculation that people inside the “cover-up” used Spielberg to help “acclimate” the public to the reality of alien intervention here on Earth. I’m not buying it. Every time I heard the man talk on the subject his comments were thoughtful, intelligent, and artistic. But they did not seem like what you’d hear from a “Deep Throat” kind of insider. They seemed to me to be authentically like what you’d hear from a movie-maker who had a passionate interest in a topic. Let me put it this way, I don’t think they’ve let Steven Spielberg see the Roswell bodies any more than they’ve let you and me do so. He’s no co-conspirator with the cover-up, just somebody who’s frustrated that 62 years after Roswell we’re still being kept officially in the dark.
Read more about this in Chapter 4 of A.D. After Disclosure: The People’s Guide to Life After Contact.
The headline from the meetings though is that, in contrast to Carl Sagan, Steven Spielberg clearly believes that aliens are here, have been here and are part of our reality and that we do not need to use S.E.T.I. to hear from them. In fact, when E.T. phones home, remember that he does so from his visit to the Earth. They’re already here folks. That’s the message.
There are two ways to look at this competition: first, as a match-up between two films to see which one is most successful cinematically, and second, as a debate between two points of view about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial contact.
Clearly, there is a structural similarity between these two stories of these films. Both begin in a world that doesn’t officially believe in alien life, demonstrate that it’s authentic, and let their main characters travel a mind-bending journey of discovery. Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway already believes and is rewarded for her lifetime search while Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary is blindsided by the reality and has to adjust a lot faster.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the far more transcendent film, despite what has always struck me as an annoying performance by Richard Dreyfuss, fresh off his work with Spielberg on Jaws. In contrast, Contact labors hard to show the human politics behind real contact and, like its competition, suffers from a completely unsympathetic portrayal by Jody Foster of a character that is an atheist smarty-pants who knows better than anyone else in authority.
The flaw in Contact though is that it’s simply too intellectual. The aliens aren’t here, they’re there. They have the distance of a radio signal behind them. The first contact feels impersonal and not as compelling as it does in Close Encounters where, dammit, they’re here and they are acting weird. Even if Contact were the more likely scenario, it would still suffer as a film… but…
Contact is not the way it really is. Close Encounters may not be either but it’s leaning in the right direction. It may very well be that we will pick up a signal from space some day because aliens want to reach out and talk. But that won’t change the hard fact that other aliens have already come to Earth in the past and, evidence suggests, are here now in some respect. Or that the public has had this information hidden from it. Don’t think they could get here from there? There’s an excellent rebuttal of the Sagan philosophy in Stanton Friedman’s latest book, Flying Saucers and Science.
That’s what kills Contact as a film. It’s all about the government response to this first long-distance radio contact. But as any person knows who has looked into it, the government has already had a taste of contact and maybe a full meal. Read about Roswell. There’s an excellent new book out by Donald Schmitt and Thomas Carey, Witness to Roswell. And the sheer number of witnesses who have come forward and confirmed this, often on their death beds, is simply staggering. Roswell happened, people, and that means that Contact is a sham that couldn’t happen the way the Sagan story and Zemeckis film is laid out. The governmental powers-that-be would have to fess up their duplicity in covering up close contact if we get a S.E.T.I. signal and that would be a very different movie.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn’t perfect when it comes to telling a story that has the ring of truth, but it is a lot better. It dips pretty heavily into the “space brothers” scenario, about benevolent beings coming to Earth to have a chat. It ignores the compelling number of cases of more sinister intent. Again, if you do the reading, there have been numerous military sightings and more than a few lost planes. Plus, there’s the entire abduction phenomenon that seems, at the very least, to demonstrate an alien indifference to our individual feelings, treating people more like we treat animals. So there’s that.
In my view, as is clear, alien contact has already occurred. Although I’m not an insider, my strong belief is that it is more likely to look like Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Contact. In actuality, it may have a darker side than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but that is a subject for another Smackdown. [Fire in the Sky (1993) -vs- Communion (1989)]
Spielberg has also made a better film than his pal Zemeckis. Belief in UFOs is not a requirement for preferring it.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition is still registers as an awesome, passionate, artistic statement by a young filmmaker who’s trying to touch the stars. Carl Sagan was a great man, but his stubborn belief that life is virtually everywhere out there but it couldn’t be here takes him out the game because it undermines the very premise of this film.
Watch the skies! Don’t just listen to them.