It was the right story at the right time. Close Encounters broke the mold of hostile, war-bent aliens, introducing instead hope of a kinder, gentler extra-terrestrial universe. The movie offered, as one critic said, “a benign, dreamy-eyed vision.”
Baby boomers were raised on steady diet of sci-fi fright and horror. Intelligent life beyond Earth was so terrifying there were hardly words to describe the creatures. It Came from Outer Space. Behold the The Thing From Another World. And what could be more blood-curdling than than an Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
By the late 1970s, boomers were producing the Hollywood pop culture image of aliens. No one captured the New Age zeitgeist better than Stephen Spielberg in Close Encounters and then ET.
There was still Star Wars and the Dark Side to make us shudder and gasp. But the boomer generation was looking for something more. Many had been on a spiritual quest, focusing on non-western ideas and religions that imagined a peaceful, harmonious universe. And were we not moving into the astrological era of Aquarius, away from domination and individualism to cosmic oneness and co-operation? If intelligent beings are out there, they don’t want to destroy or control Earth; they come to coax us into a world of enlightenment.
A cosmic high-five
In 1977, Spielberg delivered this theme in Close Encounters. A small group of “chosen” people are telepathically programmed to an alien Mother Ship, which delivers a load of previously “abducted” earth people and picks up the new recruits.
The theme was present, however obscurely, in Space Odyssey: 2001. A few years later, a best seller proposed that benevolent aliens visited prehistoric earth to give early humans advanced technology. Boomers made Chariot of the Gods a best seller. Alien abduction stories gained momentum in the 1960s. By the time Close Encounters debuted, you could fill a stadium with people who claimed to have been teleported to space ships. Some were forced to endure harsh medical examinations, but others were given extra-terrestrial wisdom. Crop Circles mysteriously appeared and might be messages both warning and guiding Earth to a more evolved vision.
For many, Close Encounters suggested that “humankind has reached the point where it is ready to enter of the community of the cosmos.” Spielberg combined optimism with a dose of guarded naivete to create what one critic called “a kid’s film in the best sense.” It was a warm-up for the ultimate kid’s sci-fi story: ET.
Richard Dreyfus was not Spielberg’s first choice for the lead. Steve McQueen felt unsuited for the role, especially because he couldn’t cry on cue. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson also passed. An all-star non-cast.
Boomer Trivia Questions
►Which of these were actual sci-fi movies?
Abbot & Costello Go to Mars
Zombies of the Stratosphere
Invasion of the Blood Suckers
Cat Women of the Moon
Teenagers From Outer Space
►What major actor had his debut starring role in the 1958 sci-fi horror classic, The Blob?
Robert Di Niro
Answers at end of post
►Invasion of the Blood Suckers was a natural, but no such movie was made. The rest, believe it or not, exist, at least in archives.
►The start of a great career for young Steve McQueen.