Contact (1997) -vs- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 | 1980 | 1998)

Contact -vs- Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Bryce Zabel, Editor-in-ChiefThe Smackdown

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?

The Challenger

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.

The Scorecard

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.

The Decision

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.


About Bryce Zabel 199 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, writer/producer and fast-food cook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of Movie Smackdown. While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, creator of five primetime network TV series, and author of a new non-fiction book about UFOs.

14 Comments on Contact (1997) -vs- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 | 1980 | 1998)


  1. We have been invaded our nukes shutdown…..the United States Government is coving up the facts…..CIA is leading cover up since 1940///why does the government cover this up because they are a bunch of Dumb ASS’S and are preparing and have been at war with the Aliens since 1940….are the Aliens good some are for sure have been visting native americans for thousands of years star people…some may be bad but the fact is its a COVER-UP and any time that happens it means your government cannot be TRUSTED. How do I know I was at the Utah Launch Complex oct 1973.war had broken out in middle east…military had gone to DEFCON III ,nukes activated on stand-by..giant UFO invaded base shutdown missles. Google UFO & NUKE PRESS CONFERENCE WASHINGTON,DC AT THE PRESS CLUB…..these officers are correct….I had contact was top side they were underground……..google BIG SPOOK LITTLE SPOOK these are the radar men at the UTAH LAUNCH COMPLEX that had the ALIEN ships on RADAR…military photo……stand-by there coming back and I know WHEN AND WHY good luck DUMB ASS’S


    • There is no evidence of Hanger 18 or Rosewell, you freeks.

      Close Encounters and Contact are good films, they should be looked at as films, not as a way of life.


      • Point taken.

        However, “freeks” is actually spelled freaks.


  2. A well-written and thorough article, as noted by others, but I beg to differ on a few points.
    First, let it be known that I am no biased fan of Jodie Foster. Personally I think, for all her talents, she is not really showing us versatility in all her different roles. Ever since “Contact” she strikes me as the same person, the scientist, in whatever roles she is playing. That aside, I say she played the scientist in “Contact” superbly, magnificently, and believably. With genuine passion, depth and authenticity. To call her character an atheist smarty-pants smacks of religious bias and contempt, whether you are an atheist yourself or not. Not to mention, she, as a scientist, does know better than anyone in authority within the context of the film.
    As far as comparing the two films, such comparison should be based solely on the merits of the films, not whether either one reflects reality better than the other. Either film represents a school of thought. As such, either one is plausible. You cannot simply dismiss “Contact” because there may be real-life aliens among us, rendering “Contact” obsolete and incorrect. Whether aliens are here, and/or have visited us in the past is not the point here. The point is that “Contact” presents us with a plausible idea, and the story is very well constructed. More so in the book, but the film is not far behind, despite some Hollywoodian embellishmenths, without which Zemeckis whould have been better off.
    At the risk of further sounding as if I have a bias towards “Conact”, allow me to say that “Contact” is as good a movie as the “Encounters”, if not better. The “Encounters”, to my taste, is just a little too cliched and sentimental, and has Hollywood written all over it. “Contact”, if you are not trying to see it as a representation of any reality, rather as an elaboration on an idea, is a well executed and presented story that covers a very wide ground in an intelligent and plausible way.
    If you consider it from a different angle, you’ll see that the idea in “Encounters” is very simple: aliens visiting us. In contrast, there are several ideas layered in “Contact”, just as the information content is layered in the radio message received within. Not only it deals with alien contact, but at the same time it does so with human conceit, stupidity, and science vs. religion. “Contact” is more than just another sci-fi movie about aliens. It’s also a reflection on mankind and its shizophrenia.
    Nevertheless, both films are great entertainment. And while “entertainment” is almost the only key-word for “Encounters”, one must add “thought-provoking” to it when describing “Contact”.
    And please note that we are not discussing the topic of aliens visiting earth in real life. That is another can of worms altogether. We are discussing two films only, based on their own merits, as manifestations of two fictional stories.


  3. First… to Randal Cohen… you really do show your ignorance.
    Mr. Zabel: I heard you on Jesse Randolph’s internet radio show talking more about your experiences developing UFO projects. You really should find a forum to discuss this better than this one. I like your Movie Smackdown site just fine, but you have so much to discuss outside of the movies. Why don’t you start a new site dedicated to your UFO knowledge?


  4. nice..site working good


  5. Given some of the comments above, I’m wondering where you come down on whether these are just movies or the reflection of an emerging reality?


  6. Apollo 18: Don’t waste your time trying to convert skeptics like Cohen. He will not understand the truth until he is pulled kicking and screaming from his comfortable little life and shaken out of his complacency by true events. Since we both know the broad outlines of what’s going on, the urgency of the situation is to prepare ourselves for the emerging reality and leave the Cohen’s of the world to deal with it when they finally can’t deny it any longer.


  7. Mr. Cohen: You are entitled to your own opinion, of course, but your attitude of ridicule is not supported by the facts. I’m sure you’ll not do this, but if you would actually study the military’s own records and the cases tracked by numerous foreign governments as well, that you’d see that while you view “flying saucers” or UFOs as a laughing matter, the people who run governments and pay for military bases do not. The sheer number of high quality witness cases from Air Force pilots in the US and military pilots worldwide would be a good place for you to start your education. These pilots (and radar techs) are not prone to exaggeration or lying and, in fact, are usually very nervous about even talking about the things they’ve seen. And what they’ve seen goes way beyond lights or reflections or swamp gas or anything else used by debunkers to explain these incidents away. Many, many pilots have reported physical structures that behave in ways that no known aircraft is capable of. Like I say, you probably don’t care, but you should.


  8. Tom… No, the evidence is not overwhelming or no, it’s not a joke?


  9. No it’s not.


  10. The evidence is now overwhelming. No joke.


  11. You believe in flying saucers? That explains a lot.


  12. Excellent article, as always Bryce. I am, however, going to have to respectfully disagree with your result this time round. While you have explained your reasoning for this result quite well, for me, it comes down to a case of which film is the more “entertaining”, and while Mr Spielberg may very well have a large amount of cimeatic clout to his name, Zemeckis is one of my all time favourite directors as well, and I think Contact is an absolute triumph. Visual trickery in Contact notwithstanding, I had a greater emotional connection with Jodie Foster’s Ellie as opposed to Richard Dreyfuss somewhat manic characterisation, and although each has it’s place, I believed Fosters to be the more realistic. Sure, Contact had it’s controversies and it’s moments of silliness, however, the fundamental human themes within (I too disagree with some of Carl Sagan’s ideas, but Zemeckis seems to have rooted out the human story in Sagan’s plot) are, for me, much more potent in this film. As a side note, I felt the themes of religion vs science were dones quite well, with convincing arguments either way allowing the audience to appreciate both points of view. While it may be a little forced, perhaps even a little trite, to say that Contact is a more thematic film, in terms of the idea’s it’s trying to show the viewer, for me it’s simply a case of which holds my interest and fascination more. With this said, Contact, for me, is a more interesting film. CEIII is by no means a shoddy product, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that I identified with Contact more.
    Great review though!!!

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