Since its original cinematic release in 1977, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳ of the Third Kind has been the subject of fervent speculation in the U̳F̳O̳ conspiracy community.
Many U̳F̳O̳ buffs are convinced that the movie was produced as part of an official acclimation program in anticipation of an a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ “disclosure” event. This speculation can be traced back to the production of the movie itself.
On 23 July 1976, after a hard day’s shoot, around forty of the cast and crew, including stars Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, gathered in the sticky night air of Mobile, Alabama, to hear a lecture delivered by the movie’s appointed advisor on U̳F̳O̳s, Professor J. Allen Hynek (the famed astronomer had been flown in for a brief cameo in the closing scenes).
Shortly after Hynek’s lecture, actor Bob Balaban (who plays the character of translator David Laughlin), began to discuss with his colleagues an intriguing rumour that had been circulating during the production—“a rumour,” wrote Balaban in his production diary, “that the film is part of the necessary training that the human race must go through in order to accept an actual landing, and is being secretly sponsored by a government U̳F̳O̳ agency.”
In 2014, I had the opportunity to interview Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳production designer, Joe Alves. I asked him if ever he had heard any such rumours during the shoot, and if there was any substance to them. “There were a lot of rumours,” he told me, ambiguously, before changing the subject.
Back in 1977, even Spielberg himself seemed to be dropping hints: “I wouldn’t put it past this government that a cosmic Watergate has been underway for the last 25 years,” the director remarked during a Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳ promotional interview, “eventually they might want to tell us something about what they’ve discovered over the decades.”
During the same interview, the director spoke with relish of “rumours” that President Carter was due to make “some unsettling disclosures” about U̳F̳O̳s later that year. Needless to say, no such disclosures were forthcoming.
Particularly curious is that the Carter Presidential Library contains no record of the film-loving President ever having viewed Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳ while in office.
However, in a 1977 Canadian TV interview conducted directly after the movie’s theatrical release, Spielberg said matter-of-factly that Carter had viewed the movie “Last Saturday.” Spielberg remarked, “We haven’t heard the direct feedback,” but added, “We hear he [Carter] liked it quite a bit.”
The following March, The Phoenix Gazette cited Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳ as “Jimmy Carter’s favorite movie,” noting that “The President has seen the movie many times.” This is not the only discrepancy over the official record concerning Carter and Spielberg.
Officially, Spielberg never set foot in the Carter White House and had never met the President, and yet a solitary photocopy of a photograph discovered in the Carter Presidential Library proves that the two men did meet.
The photo shows Carter and Spielberg engaged in conversation and is signed: “To Steven Spielberg, [from] Jimmy Carter.” An accompanying White House stationary note signed by White House Social S̳e̳c̳r̳e̳t̳ary Gretchen Poston and addressed to Spielberg reads: “The President thought you would enjoy receiving the enclosed photograph.”
This apparent secrecy almost certainly resulted from a desire among Carter’s staff to keep the Administration from being further publicly associated with flying saucers. Famously, Carter had his own U̳F̳O̳ sighting in 1969 in Leary, Georgia, witnessing a bright white round object that approached his position before stopping and then receding into the distance.
Carter was with twelve other people at the time, all of whom witnessed the strange phenomenon. Needless to say, a U̳F̳O̳-spotting President viewing the ultimate U̳F̳O̳ movie at the White House and having get-togethers with its a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳-obsessed director would have been a PR nightmare.
By far the most outlandish of the conspiracy theories surrounding Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳ relates to Project Serpo—an alleged human/a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ exchange program between US military personnel and a race of e̳x̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳s from the Zeta Reticuli star system.
The story goes that, in July of 1965, twelve astronauts were taken to the planet Serpo aboard an a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ spaceship and remained there for thirteen years. In exchange, the a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s left one of their own in the custody of the US government.
This story didn’t emerge until 2005 in the form of a string of anonymous emails that were sent to selected U̳F̳O̳ researchers, including Project Camelot/Avalon’s Bill Ryan, who created a website dedicated to the “leaks.”
The Serpo story lead some in the conspiracy community to speculate that Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳ was partly inspired by the alleged a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳-human exchange program of 1965, which assumes that Spielberg himself was privy to inside information on the U̳F̳O̳ issue.
In the movie’s final scenes, a taller a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ (designed by effects expert Carlo Rambaldi) is seen to exit the mothership and communicate with the character of Claude Lacombe via a series of hand gestures. Immediately before this we see twelve scientists clad in jumpsuits preparing to board the mothership and take permanent leave of planet Earth. Roy Neary joins the group as its thirteenth member.
It is important to note that the Serpo story, which has not a shred of evidence to support it, did not emerge until 2005, twenty-eight years after the release of Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳. It’s probably safe to assume then that former inspired the latter, rather than vice versa.
Whether or not there is any truth to the conspiracy theories surrounding Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳, Spielberg’s movie remains hugely significant for the fact that it played a central role in Hollywood’s mid-to-late-1970s economic revival—its $338 million worldwide box-office gross forced crusty studio executives to recognize America’s vast and largely neglected youth market and to adapt their output accordingly.
Two other a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳-themed movies of the period would also play a key role in this industrial paradigm shift: Star Wars (1977) and Superman(1978).
Together, these three films about the wonders of the universe acted as adrenalin, shot straight into the heart of a dying industry (though many critics would argue, perhaps justifiably, that this adrenalin acted as poison in the long-term, stifling creativity and individuality in Hollywood).
Spielberg’s film also reignited public curiosity about U̳F̳O̳s as an enduring enigma, and its release closely coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Roswell I̳n̳c̳i̳d̳e̳n̳t̳.
Just one year later, Jesse Marcel would spill the beans on his first-hand experiences of that event, opening the floodgates for hundreds more closely-corresponding Roswell testimonies.
With Vietnam and Watergate still fresh in the mind, Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳ came as a reassuring hug for America towards the end of a decade of disillusionment, and Spielberg’s movie would redefine Hollywood’s working relationship with a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳s for much of the 1980s, resulting in movies such as E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Starman, Batteries Not Included, and The Abyss, to name but a few.
Thanks to Close E̳n̳c̳o̳u̳n̳t̳e̳r̳s̳, what for so many decades had come only to conquer, could now come in peace.