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Steven Spielberg

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David Roche

Spielberg’s Early Career

Spiritual Science Fiction for the Whole Family: Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1970s Hollywood

Peter Krämer

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1The brief summary statement heading Variety’s review of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in November 1977 read: “Special effects overcome flawed story. Big outlook” (Murphy 108). The trade paper’s chief reviewer A.D. Murphy judged the film’s final quarter, during which its main characters assemble for a climactic encounter with a huge alien spaceship, to be “an absolute stunner, literate in plotting, dazzling in execution and almost reverent in tone” (109). By contrast, Murphy remarked, the rest of the film was quite difficult to enjoy because, stylistically challenging the viewer with “visual jerkiness” and an “audio cacophony,” it presented a “rather misanthropic” view of “contemporary suburbia” as “a high tension, nervous, uneasy, often heartless environment,” in which the two protagonists, “supposedly being the audience’s reps in the story, are helpless flotsam” (108–109).

2While Murphy found the “uncompromising creative point of view” of writer-director Steven Spielberg “admirable,” he also noted that, quite unusually for a film of this kind, Close Encounters was “pitched to an above-average level of intelligence,” which would normally limit its box office potential, if it were not for the overwhelming impact of the final sequence (109). Still, Murphy felt that Close Encounters “lacks the warmth and humanity of George Lucas’ Star Wars,” which had broken box office records earlier that year (109). At the same time, he wrote, “the denouement is light years ahead of the climactic nonsense of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,” the very film which, since its initial release in 1968, had been the benchmark for achievements in the science fiction genre (109).

  • 1 Star Wars was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including “Best Picture” and “Best Original Screen (...)

3Although Murphy’s concerns about the weaknesses of Close Encounters were shared by other reviewers, the film became a huge commercial and critical success. Both the New York Times and Time included it (together with Star Wars) in their end-of-year list of the ten best movies of 1977, and the National Board of Review declared it (and Star Wars) to be among the ten best English-language films of the year (Steinberg 175, 179, 284). Close Encounters was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including “Best Director”), and it won in the “Best Cinematography” category, while also receiving a “Special Achievement Award” for sound effects editing, which it shared with Star Wars (253–254).1 When in 1978 the film magazine Take One asked twenty critics to select the ten best American movies of the decade 1968–1977, both David Thomson and Stanley Kauffmann listed Close Encounters (Star Wars was also included by two critics, while 2001 had six listings) (156–168).

  • 2 While I refer to the U.S. in the text, in fact Variety also includes revenues from Canada in its do (...)
  • 3 Lesser science fiction hits included Coma, Capricorn One and The Fury, all in the top 25 with renta (...)

4The commercial performance of Close Encounters was even more impressive. By the end of 1977, it had already earned $23 million in rentals (that is the money exhibitors’ pay to a film’s distributor), which made it the ninth most successful film of the year in the U.S. (“Big Rental Films of 1977” 21).2 Star Wars, which had been released six months before Close Encounters, topped the chart with $127 million. The continued box office success of both films the following year (Close Encounters was at number two in the end-of-year chart with $54 million and Star Wars at number seven with $38 million) prompted Variety to declare that of all genres “Science Fiction probably fared best” in 1978 (“Big Rental Films of 1978” 17; Frederick, “Travolta’s Grease” 3).3

  • 4 An attempt to adjust the rental figures for ticket price inflation produced a list which had Gone W (...)
  • 5 At a stretch, one might also want to consider Young Frankenstein (1975; no. 34) here, as an update (...)

5The genre’s extraordinary success in 1977–1978 was highlighted by the fact that Variety’s listing in January 1979 of the 200 all-time top moneymaking films at the U.S. box office was headed by Star Wars, with Close Encounters at number eight (Steinberg 5).4 This level of success was unprecedented for the genre; indeed, the only science fiction films in the top 200 released before 1977 were 2001 (at no. 60), A Clockwork Orange (1971; no. 133) and Planet of the Apes (1968; no. 140) (5–8).5 In 1979 and 1980, the box office dominance of science fiction became ever more obvious. In the light of the success in 1979 of Superman (at no. 1 in the end-of-year chart), Alien (no. 4), Star Trek (no. 5) and Moonraker (no. 7), as well as several minor hits such as Buck Rogers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and yet another re-release of Star Wars (all three in the top 35 with rentals of around $11 million), Variety noted: “Science-fiction remained very popular” (“Big Rental Films of 1979” 21; Frederick, “Superman 1979 Runaway no. 1—$81 Mil” 21).

6The paper’s annual review of 1980 highlighted the huge success of The Empire Strikes Back, which was unprecedented for a sequel (Frederick, “Empire, $120 Mil” 29). The end-of-year chart had Empire at number one and Disney’s The Black Hole at number twelve with other science fiction films further down, including the “Special Edition” of Close Encounters which earned almost $6 million (“Big Rental Films of 1980” 29); for this version, Spielberg had deleted several scenes from the original while adding plenty of previously unseen material (Morton 305–15). The top ten of Variety’s list of “All-Time Film Rental Champs” in the U.S. now included four science fiction films: Star Wars (no. 1), Empire (no. 3), Superman (no. 7) and Close Encounters (no. 10) (“All-Time Film Rental Champs” 28).

7The success of Close Encounters between 1977 and 1980 was thus part of a major change in hit patterns at the U.S. box office, which moved science fiction—a genre which, in box office terms, had previously been, with few exceptions, quite marginal—to the very center of Americans’ experience of cinema-going and of Hollywood’s operations. The latter was exemplified by the major studios’ willingness to invest huge amounts of money in individual science fiction productions, with Close Encounters, Superman, Star Trek, Moonraker and Empire all being among the twenty-five most expensive films in Hollywood history up to 1980 (Steinberg 50–51).

8This chapter examines Spielberg’s contribution to this fundamental reorientation of Hollywood cinema by taking a closer look at the critical reception of Close Encounters (both in 1977 and in 1980), and by placing the film in the context both of his career as a filmmaker (going back to the amateur films he made as a child) and of important trends in Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s. In doing so, I pay particular attention to the religious, or spiritual, dimensions of Close Encounters and to its status as family entertainment.

9Reviewers in 1977 saw the subject of Close Encounters mainly in generic terms, as a typical science fiction tale about a “confrontation with life forms from another world,” in A.D. Murphy’s words (108). But they also acknowledged, more or less explicitly, that there had been a long-running debate about the real-world phenomenon of unidentified flying objects, with countless people believing that such objects were in fact the spacecraft of intelligent extra-terrestrials. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Saturday Review), for example, mentioned in his review that the film was based on the reasonable assumption that extra-terrestrial intelligence did, indeed, exist (46). By contrast, Clark Whelton (Village Voice) accused the film of “a shameless stroking of public gullibility,” that is the devious exploitation of people’s misguided beliefs about UFOs (47). Along similar lines, Molly Haskell (New York) accused the film of “pseudo-science” (144), while Rex Reed (New York Daily News) highlighted its “scientific mumbo jumbo” (3).

10Reviewers of the 1980 special edition appeared to be less concerned about this. Thus, Archer Winsten (New York Post) declared that he was a “confirmed skeptic: If a saucer landed in Washington Square and invited me to take a spin around Manhattan, and I did it, I would still consider it a major hallucination” (31). But he then went on to say that, like the two Star Wars movies, Close Encounters worked well as science fiction, an “imaginative movie construction,” “good escapist stuff,” “a first-class dream” (31).

11Apart from relating Close Encounters to the science fiction genre and the public debate about UFOs, reviewers in 1977 sometimes discussed the film in religious terms. This was, of course, actively encouraged by the film itself, because The Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1956) is shown on television, and referenced in the dialogue, in an early scene in the Neary household, suggesting a parallel between Moses and Neary, both of whom go up a mountain for an encounter with heavenly beings; in addition, the climactic sequence prominently features a prayer. It is not surprising, then, that, as already mentioned, A.D. Murphy would describe the finale as “almost reverent in tone” (109), while Clark Whelton’s review was entitled “Failed Faith” (47). Vincent Canby (New York Times) argued that the film’s “breathtaking” finale was “deliberately designed to suggest a religious experience of the first kind” (C19). And Molly Haskell accused Spielberg of “phony” “pseudo-religion” (144).

12In 1980, the film’s apparent religiosity was mostly discussed in terms of what reviewers perceived to be its tremendous optimism. Thus, David Denby (New York) wrote: “We have probably reached the end of the Jimmy Carter era, and it’s rather poignant to see a movie that captured the millennial hopes, the born-again fervor, of its beginning” (70). He declared Close Encounters to be “the wittiest religious film ever made” (70). David Sterritt (Christian Science Monitor) wrote that the film was “glowing with a child-like faith in the future good of mankind and, indeed, the cosmos” (Review of Close Encounters 19). And Charles Champlin (Los Angeles Times) observed that Close Encounters was “the perfect vehicle for expressing a young man’s confident hope that perfection and fulfillment lie out there somewhere beyond the stars” (1). In Champlin’s view, the fact that Spielberg, the young man in question, had made “that attractive child, Cary Guffey, the symbol of a childlike faith in the possibility of benign visitations” was simply “inspired” (1).

13Indeed, both in 1977 and in 1980, reviewers noted that, for better or for worse, the figure of the child was central to the appeal of Close Encounters. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that Spielberg “embodies the capacity for wonder... in a four-year-old child drawn buoyantly and irresistibly to the intruders” (46). David Sterritt described Barry Guiler (the child character played by Cary Guffey) as “a starry youngster with insights as yet undiscovered by the story’s grown-up heroes,” and found the film’s focus on “our most childlike movie images” appropriate for “a subject of such magnitude and strange promise—mankind’s first close encounter with a vastly greater intelligence than its own” (“UFO Saga—Astonishing, Thrilling, Moving” 32). In his attack on the film, Rex Reed wrote: “Through the eyes of the innocent child... we are supposed to accept Spielberg’s fantasy on faith” (3). Molly Haskell similarly argued: “The child’s sense of wonder, and his instinctive reaching out for a phenomenon that his elders regard with fear and suspicion, is glorified as the way of truth-seeking innocence” (144).

14In addition to thus highlighting the importance of the child character and of the child-like qualities the film tried to evoke in—or impose on—the audience, reviewers also noted the film’s particular suitability for children. Vincent Canby described Close Encounters as “virtually an anthology of all sorts of children’s literature,” and thought that it was basically a G-rated movie, yet because this rating was widely perceived to indicate films only suitable for children, he suspected that “some slightly vulgar language had been inserted in the dialogue for the singular purpose of preventing it from being rated G” (C19). Molly Haskell commented that Spielberg “knows how to make children’s films that parents can love without shame” (144). And Sharon Wechsler Smolar (Wisdom’s Child) declared Close Encounters to be “the best bet of this holiday for children of all ages.... No sex, no inappropriate language, no frightening monsters from outer space to give a young child nightmares” (16).

15Reviewers in 1980 did not comment extensively on the film’s particular suitability for children, but they did perceive important connections between the film’s child character, its audience, the film’s adult characters and the filmmaker. David Sterritt wrote:

All the space-struck characters are echoes of the little boy at the center of the story, whose trust in the alien visitors makes an ideal metaphor for the film’s message—that childlike wonder is the only intelligent response to the most inexplicable mysteries of our universe.

  • 6 The film is explicitly referenced in the dialogue of the “special edition.” References to “When You (...)

16Richard Corliss (Time) described Spielberg as “child and master of the movie machine,” and found his film to be a “heartfelt homage to the spirit of early Disney,” noting that the melody of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a song from Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), appeared in the film (58).6 And David Ansen (Newsweek) ended his review with praise for the film’s “genuinely childlike sense of wonder,” by which he appeared to refer to the characters in the story, the audience in front of the screen and the filmmaker (87).

  • 7 On formal and stylistic innovation, see Krämer, “Post-Classical Hollywood” (297–307).

17In both versions, Close Encounters was widely perceived, then, as a quasi-religious science fiction film for the whole family. While, as I have shown elsewhere, this description could also be applied to the genre’s two biggest hits before Close Encounters—namely Star Wars (Krämer, “It’s aimed at kids”) and 2001 (Krämer, “A film specially suitable for children”)—the decade between the releases of these two earlier films was characterized by Hollywood’s departure from the ideal of family entertainment which had guided its output until 1966 (Krämer, The New Hollywood Chs. 1–3; Krämer, “Disney and Family Entertainment” 265–269). From 1967 to 1976, a period often labeled “Hollywood Renaissance” or “New Hollywood,” the American film industry produced a wide range of high profile movies breaking long-established taboos to do especially with sexuality, violence, race and religion (while also often introducing stylistic and formal innovations), and box office charts came to be dominated by such films (Krämer, The New Hollywood 1–2, 6–19, 33–34, 47–58).7 At the same time, Hollywood’s output of films suitable for the whole family, in particular of G-rated films specifically appealing to children, was not only much reduced, but also rarely succeeded at the box office (40–47; Krämer, “Disney and Family Entertainment” 267–269; Krämer, “The Best Disney Film” 190–192; Brown 138–150). In addition, between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, with very few exceptions—notably The Exorcist (1973)—Hollywood dramatically reduced the strong emphasis on religious characters and events which had characterized much of its output, including many of its most expensive and successful productions, in earlier decades (Powers, Rothman and Rothman Ch. 6).

18These developments were connected to generational change in the film industry, which brought baby-boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and, more importantly, people born in the interwar period, to positions of creative and executive power (Krämer, The New Hollywood 79–88). This new Hollywood elite—which was not at all representative of the American population as a whole, insofar as it was largely made up of highly educated, urban, Jewish, male liberals—was less interested than earlier generations of filmmakers and executives in servicing an all-inclusive family audience, and also much less invested in religion (84–86; Powers, Rothman and Rothman 53, 79). Indeed, within an overwhelmingly religious society, across the 1960s and 1970s Hollywood came to be ruled by a remarkably secular elite (Powers, Rothman and Rothman 52–54). What, then, could have motivated Spielberg, born as the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe into an upwardly mobile middle-class family in 1946, to inject his big budget science fiction project with religious references and to try to make it appealing to all age groups?

  • 8 Two of these interviews can be found in Friedman and Notbohm (37–69).

19In interviews Spielberg gave in the wake of the release of Close Encounters, he talked at length about his development as a filmmaker, which took him from the making of 8mm amateur short films at the age of ten, via Firelight, an 8mm feature film shown at a local cinema in 1964, and his first professional production—the 35 mm short Amblin’—to a career as a high profile television director between 1969 and 1973, and as an astonishingly successful movie director thereafter.8 In addition to Close Encounters, Spielberg had made the critically acclaimed The Sugarland Express and Jaws, which had been the all-time top grossing film at the U.S. box office before it was overtaken by Star Wars (Steinberg 4).

20When, at the beginning of 1978, an interviewer noted his “amazing ability to strongly affect an audience” and asked “[w]hat [he had learned] from [his] early films that helped [him] develop this ability,” Spielberg responded:

Well, the first thing I realized is that the audience is the key. I’ve been making films through myself and for an audience, rather than for myself and the next of kin who understand me. I guess I might be called an “entertainment” director—or, to be more crass, a “commercial” director.

  • 9 On the young Spielberg’s strong interest in the science fiction genre across literature, cinema and (...)
  • 10 On the production history of Close Encounters, see McBride (226–227, 261–286), Morton, and Balaban.

21Spielberg’s orientation towards paying customers, who could be expected to be more demanding than an audience made up of relatives and friends, had already characterized his work as an amateur filmmaker. He proudly noted that Firelight had been shown “at a buck-a-head to 500 people. The film cost $400 and I made $100 profit the first night it showed” (60; cp. McBride 11–15, 85–86). Importantly, Firelight is a science fiction film about encounters with extra-terrestrials on Earth and the breakdown of a marriage (McBride 102–108).9 When, in 1970, Spielberg first embarked on the project that was to preoccupy him for much of the decade and eventually became Close Encounters, he was, in effect, reworking Firelight.10

22In his interviews in the 1970s, Spielberg acknowledged that “the audience” was not a monolithic entity by pointing out that the cinema-going public “changes every two or three years” (Poster 62), and also that different films could be addressed to different kinds of people. Amblin’, for example, had been made specifically to impress film industry insiders. After many “little films... that were getting me nowhere,” Spielberg said, “I wanted to shoot something that could prove to people who finance movies that I could certainly look like a professional moviemaker” (Tuchman 42).

23As the subject for this demonstration, he chose the story of a young man and a hippieish young woman who meet on the open road; they hitchhike together, take drugs, make love and eventually go their separate ways again, all this to the accompaniment of a folk rock soundtrack, and peppered with unusual stylistic flourishes and formal devices (most notably, the film does away with dialogue). It would appear that with Amblin’ Spielberg was trying to tap into cultural currents and formats which were at that time helping to reorient mainstream Hollywood filmmaking: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, the frequent avoidance of happy endings, aesthetic innovations, a strong focus on youth and youth audiences, the road movie.

  • 11 “New Bonnie ‘n’ Clyde,” Hollywood Citizen-News, 2 May 1969, quoted and referenced in McBride (178, (...)
  • 12 Cp. the annual charts in Krämer, The New Hollywood (105–109).
  • 13 According to an unpublished chart compiled by Sheldon Hall on the basis of the data provided in Coh (...)

24Similarly, for his first theatrical feature, Spielberg selected a road movie about an escaped convict and his wife kidnapping a policeman and trying to reunite with the child that has been taken away from them, with the convict getting killed in the process. In fact, The Sugarland Express was based on a newspaper article from May 1969 carrying the title “New Bonnie ‘n[‘] Clyde,”11 thus referencing the very film that was widely perceived as the starting point of the Hollywood Renaissance (Krämer, “Post-Classical Hollywood” 297). In his review of The Sugarland Express, A.D. Murphy was confident that “[t]here’s a built-in audience for the film,” namely “a large segment of the population” that is critical of the police, yet he did not think that after “a strong start” the film would do particularly well at the box office (105). Indeed, unlike Bonnie and Clyde and many other hit movies12 featuring criminal protagonists, ending with at least one of the protagonists dead and/or being critical of key institutions of contemporary American society, The Sugarland Express turned out to be a box office flop, with just over $3 million in rentals (Cohn C76).13

  • 14 On women’s movie preferences and their neglect by Hollywood, see Krämer, “A Powerful Cinema-going F (...)

25Perhaps partly in response to the film’s commercial failure, Spielberg would later strongly criticize his theatrical debut, mainly because, in retrospect, he felt that it was too one-sided: “I don’t think the authorities get a fair shake in Sugarland” (Tuchman 47). The implication is that this may well have alienated certain (conservative) audience segments. In another interview, shortly after the release of Sugarland, Spielberg noted that “the motion picture industry has systematically shied away from the women’s movie,” here understood as a film centered on a female protagonist and addressed primarily to a female audience: “Yet, it’s the women who shove their men into the movie theaters each weekend” (Borrow 72).14 Thus, Spielberg was well aware that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with regard to its theatrical releases, Hollywood was in danger of actively alienating, or at least severely neglecting, the majority of the American population: conservatives and women, and also, he could have added, children, older people, members of the working class, rural populations and those without much education (Krämer, “Disney and Family Entertainment” 268–70; Krämer, The New Hollywood 58–59).

  • 15 Yet even the television networks had been starting to put more emphasis on the demographic “quality (...)

26Spielberg’s awareness of this problematic situation is not surprising because it was widely debated in trade papers and the general press (Krämer, “Disney and Family Entertainment” 268–270; Krämer, The New Hollywood 60–62). In addition, as already noted, before making The Sugarland Express, Spielberg had worked very successfully (as a director of made-for-television movies and episodes of drama series) in network television which, unlike most contemporary movies, was still trying to reach an all-inclusive mass audience.15

  • 16 On the long-term impact of historical epics on Spielberg and his contemporaries, see Russell (Ch. 1 (...)

27Furthermore, the filmmaker emphasized in interviews that his own movie socialization had been surprisingly limited and wholly determined by his parents, revolving around films “which today you would call of the General Audience nature” (that is, G-rated movies), such as family-friendly comedies, musicals and romances, and most especially Disney’s animated and live action features (Tuchman 39; cp. Poster 55–57 and McBride 79–82). Spielberg said that Cecil B. DeMille’s circus extragavanza The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) was the first film he had ever seen at the cinema (Tuchman 39; Poster 57), and that he had been particularly fascinated by the historical epics, many of them religious (McBride 82), which had provided special occasions for the whole family to go to the cinema together, and had dominated box office charts across the 1950s and much of the 1960s (Krämer, The New Hollywood 19–27, 111–115; Hall and Neale Chs. 7–8).16 He noted that he had only familiarized himself with older Hollywood classics, and with both American and European films outside the mainstream, from the late 1960s onwards: “It wasn’t until I was professionally making films that I began to see some of the old pictures and have my own renaissance in film appreciation” (Tuchman 39; cp. Poster 56 and McBride 143).

28Thus, as a director in the 1970s, Spielberg was torn between an older conception of film (whether shown on television or in cinemas) as often religiously inflected entertainment for the whole family and all Americans, and Hollywood’s recent understanding of much of its theatrical output as wholly secular works addressed primarily to youth audiences, especially highly educated, liberal, male, urban youth (not coincidentally, this demographic group closely mirrored the social composition of the Hollywood elite, apart from the latter’s older age and disproportionally Jewish background).

  • 17 See, for example, Spielberg’s interview statements about the film’s production in Helpern (8–12), B (...)

29Spielberg’s work on Jaws was an expression of this duality.17 The film largely removed or toned down the many sexual incidents (including an affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper) and highly sexualized language of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel, but it opened with a scene combining nudity, sexual promise and a lethal shark attack, and featured instances of graphic violence throughout its story. The film’s poster focused on the threat a huge shark poses to a (nude) female swimmer, promising prospective audiences violence, death and extreme terror, ingredients hardly suitable for an all-inclusive family audience (Krämer, “A truly mass audience”). And yet, in his review of Jaws, A.D. Murphy noted: “The... PG rating attests to the fact that implicit dramaturgy is often more effective than explicit carnage” (107).

30Murphy’s later review of Close Encounters, discussed at the beginning of this essay, indicates that this film also reflected the tensions in Spielberg’s outlook on the nature of movie entertainment, insofar as it was stylistically unsettling (due to its “visual jerkiness” and “audio cacophony”), formally disorienting (with its main protagonists being “helpless flotsam” rather than self-determined narrative agents) and highly critical of contemporary American life (with its “rather misanthropic” view of suburbia), and made unusually high demands on spectators (by being “pitched to an above-average level of intelligence”) (108–109). Yet at the same time, Close Encounters was widely perceived, as we have seen, as a film for the whole family, not least because it avoided explicit sex and graphic violence, focused on family relations, in particular on the experiences of a child and an increasingly childlike adult man, and also invoked, through various audio and visual cues, two dominant strands in fifties and sixties family entertainment: the historical epic (especially its Biblical variant as exemplified by The Ten Commandments) and Disney movies (notably Pinocchio).

  • 18 Relevant material on Spielberg’s changing approach to the project can be found, for example, in McB (...)

31It would seem, then, that Spielberg decided to make Close Encounters appealing to all age groups because in the battle between the two contrasting conceptions of film entertainment underpinning his work from the late 1960s onwards, this time the family-friendly and religiously inflected version won out. The questions why this was the case, and how Spielberg was able—partly due to his steadily rising status in the film industry (especially after the success of Jaws)—to impose his family-friendly vision on the project, deserve further attention,18 but for the purpose of this chapter, I will have to restrict myself to a consideration of the role played by religion in all this.

32Spielberg’s long-standing interest in extra-terrestrial intelligence, going back all the way to his childhood, was rooted not only in science fiction, but also in the scientific exploration of real-world phenomena—best exemplified by The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, a 1972 book by the astrophysicist J. Allen Hynek who received a credit as “Technical Advisor” on Close Encounters (Morton 23–4, 39–44, 132; Combs 31–32; and Tuchman 37–38). Yet in his comments on the issue of whether or not unidentified flying objects could indeed be spacecrafts from outer space, he used language familiar from discussions of religion. In a 1977 interview, for example, he had this to say about “the UFO controversy”: “If you believe, it’s science fact; if you don’t believe, it’s science fiction. I’m an agnostic” (Combs 31). He also stated: “Nobody can prove it. I really don’t know if anybody wants to prove it today, but we all want to know that we’re not alone” (Tuchman 50). Thus, for Spielberg, UFOs were ultimately, like religion, a matter of faith, rather than scientific proof; as with people’s belief in God, their willingness to believe in UFOs arose, according to Spielberg, from a deeply felt need to connect their earthly existence to the presence of higher forces in the universe. It is not so surprising, then, that he developed Close Encounters as a quasi-religious story.

  • 19 Cp. the annual charts and the inflation-adjusted period chart in Krämer, The New Hollywood (111–115 (...)
  • 20 The figures for the 1979 repeat broadcast would be 27.4 and 48 (Steinberg 34).

33This also allowed, and indeed encouraged, him to present his epic science fiction film as an extension of, or a return to, the Biblical epics that had featured so prominently in US box office charts of the 1950s—from Quo Vadis (LeRoy and Mann, 1951) and The Robe (Koster, 1953) to Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959)—and, to a lesser extent, of the early to mid-1960s—notably The Bible: In the Beginning (Huston, 1966).19 While Hollywood no longer produced such Biblical epics in the 1970s, they retained their popularity, none more so than The Ten Commandments. Its February 1973 television broadcast reached 33.2% of all American households and 54% of all people watching television at that time; of the thousands of theatrical movies shown on television before that date, only eight had ever achieved a higher rating, and only seven had ever had a larger audience share, among them Ben-Hur with its 1971 broadcast (Steinberg 32). During a repeat broadcast in two parts one year later, Part 2 achieved a 30.8 rating and a 48 audience share (33).20

  • 21 On the particular importance of child audiences in the marketing of The Ten Commandments in the 195 (...)

34It is wholly appropriate, then, that the Neary children should want to watch The Ten Commandments on television, knowing perhaps that it is a film their parents must have seen when they were children (just like Spielberg himself had).21 In conjunction with other elements of the film’s story and imagery, and of its marketing (notably the tagline “We are not alone”), this scene suggested most emphatically that Close Encounters was to be understood as an update of the family-oriented Biblical epics of Hollywood’s past. Spielberg’s decision to thus foreground the film’s spiritual dimension may well have been influenced by what David Denby’s 1980 review of the special edition of Close Encounters retrospectively described as “the millennial hopes, the born-again fervor” of the beginning of “the Jimmy Carter era”—in 1976 Carter had run successfully for the presidency as a born-again Christian (70).

Conclusion

  • 22 Krämer, “Would You Take Your Child?”; Allen; Krämer, “The Best Disney Film Disney” (193–196); Kräme (...)
  • 23 Krämer, The New Hollywood (89–103); Russell (Chs. 2–7); Powers, Rothman and Rothman (Ch. 6); Krämer(...)

35The enormous success in 1977 of both Close Encounters and Star Wars—another religiously inflected science fiction epic which did, however, have outer space rather than Earth as its main setting, and referenced (through the concept of “The Force”) Eastern spirituality more than the Bible—marked an important turning point in American, and indeed in world, film history. It is not only the case that, since that year, science fiction (together with fantasy) has risen to a dominant position at the box office (and in the video and DVD market) in the U.S. and the rest of the world (Krämer, “Hollywood and Its Global Audiences”). We can also note that family entertainment (especially the variant which, like Close Encounters and Star Wars, tells stories about incomplete and dysfunctional families) has moved back to the center of Hollywood’s operations,22 where it had been located in the decades before the late 1960s, and that religion and spirituality, as well as epics about the development of human civilization (in the past, present and future), have made a major comeback with both Hollywood producers and worldwide audiences.23

  • 24 The films in this paragraph are all among the top grossing titles of the last fifteen years; see ww (...)

36Today, global cinema audiences are most likely to turn out in their hundreds of millions for family-oriented films in which extra-terrestrial entities, including machines and God-like entities as well as more human-like beings, visit the Earth (see, for example, the Transformers series and several films in the Avengers franchise); films in which supernatural forces—ranging from magic and spirits to alien gods and goddesses—are at work in the world of humans (see, for example, the Star Wars saga, the Harry Potter films, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Avatar [2009]); and/or films in which the future of humanity or of some non-human species, allegorically standing in for humanity, is at stake—as in almost all of the films just mentioned and also, for example, in the Ice Age and Hunger Games movies, as well as the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.24

37In this context, Spielberg is no longer the towering figure at the box office that he once was. But with his three hugely influential, massive hits of the late 1970s and early 1980s—Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, a collaboration with George Lucas which once again turned to the story of Moses for inspiration insofar as it focused on the divine power of the ark containing the stone tablets inscribed with the ten commandments which he had brought down from the mountain) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (a film which broke all box-office records in 1982 and is, among many other things, a playful retelling of the story of Jesus)—Spielberg helped to bring the version of Hollywood that audiences around the world are most familiar with today into existence.

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Combs, Richard. “Primal Scream: An Interview with Steven Spielberg,” Sight and Sound, Spring 1977. Reprinted in Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Eds. Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000, 30–36.

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Notes

1 Star Wars was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including “Best Picture” and “Best Original Screenplay,” winning six (mainly in technical categories), plus the above mentioned special award.

2 While I refer to the U.S. in the text, in fact Variety also includes revenues from Canada in its domestic charts.

3 Lesser science fiction hits included Coma, Capricorn One and The Fury, all in the top 25 with rentals between $10 million and $15 million.

4 An attempt to adjust the rental figures for ticket price inflation produced a list which had Gone With the Wind (1939) at the top, followed by Star Wars; Close Encounters was just outside the top ten (Steinberg 3–4).

5 At a stretch, one might also want to consider Young Frankenstein (1975; no. 34) here, as an update and spoof of one of the ur-texts of science fiction, also perhaps Carrie (1976; no. 140, jointly with several other titles), a film about a girl with telekinetic powers. In addition, James Bond films, the highest ranked of which is Thunderball (1965; no. 43), tend to encroach on science fiction territory through their more or less futuristic deployment of advanced technology. Finally, there are two Disney films about a Volkswagen beetle with a mind of its own—The Love Bug (1969; no. 76) and Herbie Rides Again (1974)—which explore the key science fiction theme of sentient machines, but do so within a magical rather than scientific framework.

6 The film is explicitly referenced in the dialogue of the “special edition.” References to “When You Wish Upon a Star” and/or to Disney can also be found in several other reviews, mostly from 1980 but also in Sterritt’s 1977 review (“UFO Saga-Astonishing, Thrilling, Moving” 32).

7 On formal and stylistic innovation, see Krämer, “Post-Classical Hollywood” (297–307).

8 Two of these interviews can be found in Friedman and Notbohm (37–69).

9 On the young Spielberg’s strong interest in the science fiction genre across literature, cinema and television, see McBride (79).

10 On the production history of Close Encounters, see McBride (226–227, 261–286), Morton, and Balaban.

11 “New Bonnie ‘n’ Clyde,” Hollywood Citizen-News, 2 May 1969, quoted and referenced in McBride (178, 473).

12 Cp. the annual charts in Krämer, The New Hollywood (105–109).

13 According to an unpublished chart compiled by Sheldon Hall on the basis of the data provided in Cohn, The Sugarland Express did not even make it into the top fifty for its year of release.

14 On women’s movie preferences and their neglect by Hollywood, see Krämer, “A Powerful Cinema-going Force?”.

15 Yet even the television networks had been starting to put more emphasis on the demographic “quality” of the audience, rather than merely focusing on its size (Alvey).

16 On the long-term impact of historical epics on Spielberg and his contemporaries, see Russell (Ch. 1, 3–5).

17 See, for example, Spielberg’s interview statements about the film’s production in Helpern (8–12), Borrow (27–28), Combs (33–36), and Tuchman (48–51). Also see McBride (Ch. 10) and Gottlieb.

18 Relevant material on Spielberg’s changing approach to the project can be found, for example, in McBride (226–227, 261–286), Morton (esp. Chs. 1, 4, 7-9, 14, 17 and 23), Balaban, Combs, Tuchman and Poster. In addition one would have to consider the general, very gradual return to family entertainment in American cinema of the mid-1970s; see, for example, Krämer, The New Hollywood (63–65); Krämer, “Disney and Family Entertainment” (269–270); and Brown (142–143, 148).

19 Cp. the annual charts and the inflation-adjusted period chart in Krämer, The New Hollywood (111–115) and Steinberg (3–8, 21–25). Also see Hall and Neale (Chs. 7–8).

20 The figures for the 1979 repeat broadcast would be 27.4 and 48 (Steinberg 34).

21 On the particular importance of child audiences in the marketing of The Ten Commandments in the 1950s, see Russell (41–45).

22 Krämer, “Would You Take Your Child?”; Allen; Krämer, “The Best Disney Film Disney” (193–196); Krämer, “Disney and Family Entertainment” (272–276); and Brown (Chs. 6–7).

23 Krämer, The New Hollywood (89–103); Russell (Chs. 2–7); Powers, Rothman and Rothman (Ch. 6); Krämer, “Welterfolg und Apokalypse”; and Hall and Neale (Chs. 10–11).

24 The films in this paragraph are all among the top grossing titles of the last fifteen years; see www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/.

Auteur

University of East Anglia.

Peter Krämer is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK), as well as a regular guest lecturer at Masaryk University (Brno, Czech Republic) and at the University of Television and Film Munich (Germany). He has published more than sixty essays in academic journals and edited collections, including several on Spielberg. He is the author and editor of nine books, among them The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (Wallflower Press, 2005). He is a regular contributor to the on-line film magazine Pure Movies, the Women’s Film and Television History Network (UK/Ireland) blog and the ThinkingFilmCollective blogspot.

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