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Friday, July 12, 2019

July 12, 2019: Alien America: Close Encounters and Contact

[On July 8th, 1947, something happened in Roswell, New Mexico. It was probably just a weather balloon (or like a really big condor), but ever since a not-insignificant community of Americans have believed that an alien landed there and was covered up by the US government. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Roswell and other cultural representations of aliens in America, leading up to a special weekend post on one of the most famous and influential such representations ever, The X-Files!]
On two superficially similar films that feature very distinct portrayals of both America and aliens.
Two of the most prominent cinematic representations of alien encounters feature similar title images of those encounters: Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997). Spielberg was a kind of mentor to Zemeckis, executive producing the younger director’s first two films (both released in the three years after Close Encounters), and so it’s quite possible that Contact (released almost exactly 20 years after Close Encounters) was partially intended as a tribute to the earlier film (although its title is drawn from Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel on which it’s based). And the two films do follow a fundamentally similar structure when it comes to those alien encounters [SPOILERS for the two films here and in the rest of this post]: opening with a partial and uncertain such encounter and then following a group of characters attempting to connect more definitively with these aliens and, in the film’s culminating scenes, able to do so more definitively.
Yet when it comes to both those main characters and the aliens they encounter, Close Encounters and Contact differ in striking and significant ways. Spielberg’s film focuses on ordinary Americans, working-class protagonists (Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary is an electrical lineman and Melinda Dillon’s Jillian Guiler a working single mother) who are unexpectedly drawn into and fundamentally changed by the alien encounters and the broader universe they open up. Zemeckis’ film, on the other hand, focuses on scientists and parallel figures (Jodie Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway works for the SETI observatory and Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss is a spiritual leader with a lifelong obsession with theories of alien life) who have long been concerned with the question of aliens and alien encounters by the time the film opens. That difference doesn’t simply mean that the two films portray quite distinct strata of American society (although they certainly do). It also means that they depict the question of alien encounters through very different perspectives and tones—for Spielberg’s characters, these are shockingly strange questions that reveal a universe they had never known and entirely shift their identities as a result; while for Zemeckis’, these are questions toward which their whole lives have been trending and the answers to which will determine whether their identities have been meaningful or ultimately misguided.
Perhaps relatedly, the two films also portray the aliens themselves in very distinct ways. Close Encounter’s aliens look very much like our most common images of extraterrestrials—oddly shaped heads atop thin necks, very long fingers, and so on—and communicate in a language of their own, one featuring hand gestures as well as the film’s famous musical notes (courtesy of Spielberg’s favorite composer John Williams, natch). In Contact, on the other hand, we never really see the aliens, which is precisely the point: when Foster finally makes contact, the alien she meets chooses to take the form of her late father in order to connect with her more individually and intimately. Although we are meant to understand that he is indeed an alien (rather than simply a hallucination of Foster’s, as many of her peers believe), this choice nonetheless makes Contact’s alien encounter far more thematically focused on Foster’s character and identity than on the aliens themselves; while Dreyfuss in particular does become similarly obsessed with aliens in Close Encounters (eventually leaving with them at the film’s conclusion), their depiction nonetheless draws our attention to their striking form rather than simply his character. One more significant difference between these two cinematic representations of alien America.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of aliens (in America or otherwise) you’d highlight?

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