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The Great Unknown: Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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Why do we fear the unknown? In the process of answering this question, science-fiction genre films successfully capture the history of American society at distinct points in time. The genre is so closely linked to social and historical contexts that its development relies solely on this connection. Sci-fi myths and conventions have remained static for decades, and the only measurable change in the genre lies in the films’ themes (Gehring 229-230). For example, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) argues that fear of the unknown is a flaw in human nature and criticizes the social paranoia of post-war, 1940s America. Conversely, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) views the human existence through more positive outlook, wherein society can overcome such fear; this optimism reflects the escapist beliefs of the 70s. When juxtaposed, the films’ themes demonstrate the evolution of the sci-fi genre by expressing different social attitudes towards conventions such as foreign beings, unfamiliar technology, and unusual scientists. The films also represent the genre during two major aesthetic periods in cinema—the post-classical and the late modernist eras, respectively—but nonetheless serve a greater purpose in measuring America’s social progress.
Redefining the Myth: Social and Aesthetic Sensibilities
Both films use the “alien invaders” myth to examine how American society responds to unfamiliar threats. The films contain the same basic plot components—aliens visit Earth, people react in some way, conflict arises from interaction, etc.—as well as the same conventions. As one analyst wrote, generic conventions in science-fiction have no intrinsic meaning and are “fluid and plastic” (Gehring 229). Their...

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...n without fear, asking that we as a species do the same.

Works Cited

Anderson, Craig W. Science Fiction Films of the Seventies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. Print.
Booker, M. K. Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006. Print.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Richard Dreyfuss and François Truffaut. Columbia Pictures, 1977. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
The Day the Earth Stood Still. Dir. Robert Wise. Perf. Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. 20th Century Fox, 1951. Netflix. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Gehring, Wes D. Handbook of American Film Genres. New York: Greenwood, 1988. Print.
Hendershot, Cynthia. Paranoia, The Bomb, and 1950s Science Fiction Films. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 1999. Print.
Telotte, J. P. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
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