A Pedant Watches Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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Warning! Spoilers ahead.

On my podcast, Dimland Radio (available on iTunes & Podbean) I do a semi-regular segment I call the Dimland Radio Pedantic Moment. It’s a moment in which I’ll get all pedantic on some usually minor thing I’ve noticed. For example, in one of those life insurance TV ads Alex Trebek does he mentions the three P’s of life insurance offered by a particular company. They are Price, Price, and Price. A Price you can afford, a Price that cannot change, and a Price that fits your budget.

Um, Alex? A price that fits my budget is a price I can afford. So, it’s really only two P’s then, isn’t it?

See? Like that.

Sometimes my pedantic moments are rather lengthy. On last week’s show my moment was a long one. It covered much of what I didn’t understand about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A listener to my podcast attempted to assist me in getting past my pedantry, but some of it is still mystifying to me. I thought I’d go over the problems I have with the film here, as well.

Don’t get me wrong! I really like the movie. It’s just that…

The plot.

A super-advanced, extraterrestrial species, which had been visiting our planet and kidnapping our people for decades (unless you believe they built the Egyptian pyramids – they didn’t, humans did – then they’ve been coming here for thousands of years), had decided to make themselves known by driving average people crazy by implanting an image of Devil’s Tower in their minds without any explanation as to why. The people are just compelled to figure it out and go there.

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“Huh. Where have I seen that before?”

The aliens are kinda jerks.

They also steal a four year old boy right from his terrified mother’s arms. Because they needed just one more human, I guess.

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“It’s OK, lady. We’re just going to do a few experiments on him.”

No, the aliens aren’t kinda jerks. They are complete ——–!

(I prefer not to swear on this blog, but you know what I mean.)

They have also been leaving clues for the government to come meet them at Devil’s Tower. The government scares off the locals and builds a base which includes a landing strip, for some reason, and wait for our interplanetary neighbors to show up.

The pedantry.

Something the government people picked up on is a series of five musical notes coming from the spacemen that they think means something. They think it is important. This is where I get a little lost. There’s a meeting of the government people in Carnegie Hall or some similar facility, in which the head man demonstrates some hand signals matched up with the music. The hand signals come from a method of teaching music developed by a fellow named Zoltan Kodaly.

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“It’s been my life-long dream to play a reel-to-reel tape machine to a live audience.”

This is received with thunderous applause from the government people in attendance. It was met by me with a confused, “Huh?”

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“Hot crowd! Hot crowd!”

So, at the end of the movie, the alien mothership shows up and the humans and ET have a musical conversation. But, how do we earthlings know what to say in response to whatever it is that the little grey men are saying? Sure, some fellow says the aliens are teaching us a basic tonal language, whatever that means. Another says it’s the first day of school, but how do we know what the tones mean? How do we know what to play back?

On my first day of school, if my teacher had asked me to spell cat without first teaching me the alphabet, it would be pretty futile, wouldn’t it? If the aliens are trying to communicate with us using musical notes, we would need to know what the notes represent first, wouldn’t we? And yet the government men somehow know how to respond. One of them tells the musician what to play; at first, eventually a computer takes over. The musician is the only one who seems to understand my confusion. He even asks, “What are we saying to each other?”

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The musician (in the middle) is thinking to himself, “Well, at least it’s a payin’ gig.”

Remember Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in which a massive space probe is destroying the earth trying to talk to extinct humpback whales? It was the Enterprise crew that figured that out, so Admiral Kirk suggests that they respond by reproducing humpback whale sounds. Mr. Spock correctly points out that though they could make the sounds, they don’t know the language. “We would be responding in gibberish.”

Isn’t that what the humans were doing in that scene in Close Encounters?

My pedantic moment continued with my discussion of the return of the hostages these heartless aliens had been picking up on their numerous visits. Out of the mothership pile several confused people, some of whom had been gone for decades. Just how thrilled will they be to learn their loved ones had moved on or even died. “Thanks a lot, alien buddy old pal.”

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“Welcome back. You’re wife has remarried and she’s in her 60s.”

They could comfort themselves by saying, “Well, at least, I haven’t aged.” Because the aliens must have been traveling at light speed the entire time they had held these people captive. And this led to a remark made by one of the government men when another said that Einstein was right about the whole the relativity thing and aging. The remark was, “Einstein was probably one of them.” Them being the aliens.

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“Don’t look now, but isn’t that Ash from Aliens standing behind us?”

When I was a kid I thought that line was profound. Now I find it incredibly irksome. The suggestion that the human species can’t produce someone as intelligent as Einstein is profoundly insulting. Much the same way believing the ancient Egyptians weren’t capable of building the pyramids is profoundly insulting.

And here’s the pedantic thing: The government people were expecting these hostages to be returned. They had a checklist of names and a big board of photographs. How did they know? We hadn’t even learned to communicate yet! Remember? It’s the first day of school!

And just how do we know these people weren’t replicants as in Blade Runner or pod people as in The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers? They could have be sent here to take over the world! Look, the aliens have shown they don’t care about the loved ones left behind when they take prisoners. They pulled cute, innocent, trusting, little Barry right out of his mother’s arms. They didn’t give a damn.

I don’t trust them.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m thinking too much about it. It’s still a great movie.

Packing Peanuts!

Feel free to comment and share.

Images used under Fair Use.

Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books.

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