Others were less ecstatic. “Who is Spielberg to define religion for us?” asked New York magazine’s film critic Molly Haskell. (The author of a recent monograph on Mr. Spielberg, Ms. Haskell has grown more appreciative of the filmmaker if not the film.)
The Times critic Vincent Canby called the film “the best — the most elaborate — 1950s science fiction movie ever made” but, noting Mr. Spielberg’s attempt at “both scientific and theological importance,” added, “That might have been fascinating if I’d had a chance to understand it.”
And writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, the critic Colin L. Westerbeck Jr. saw “Close Encounters” as the epitome of New Age mysticism “made out of, and for, our touchy-feely culture — the culture of group therapy and group grope, of EST, TM, and (close) encounter therapy.”
However universal, “Close Encounters” was very much a generational statement. Roy’s faith in the extraterrestrials inspires him to drop out, grow a beard and rebel against an official culture of lies. His female counterpart, Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), is already something of a hippie, a solitary artist living alone with her young son (Cary Guffey) on an isolated farm.
Julia Phillips, one of the movie’s producers, saw “Close Encounters” as something akin to “Easy Rider.” In her memoir “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” she recounts the pitch she fancied herself delivering to Columbia’s head of production: “Anyone who has ever dropped acid and looked up at the sky for a while or smoked a joint and watched the Watergate hearings on TV is waiting for this movie.”
In addition to touchy-feely mysticism and contact highs, “Close Encounters” articulated the post-Watergate mistrust of government. While the movie was in production, Mr. Spielberg told The Washington Post that he felt the American government was “sitting on an incredible compilation of information”…