SPOILER ALERT: In the final scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a massive alien mothership descends from the Heavens to reveal highly-evolved benevolent Greys glowing with a sempiternal understanding of All Things. They select everyman hero Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfus) to be the one human being who will join the aliens in their travels through the Kingdom of Outer Space and everyone else looks at him like, “Go, dude.” Neary climbs on board, they all take off and that’s the end of the movie.
Gets me every time.
Here’s the thing: Neary’s character is a husband and father of three children (none of whom, I should mention, are the little boy in that scene). Yet without so much as a “goodbye,” he abandons that family to snag an interstellar ride from some tuba-playing strangers he just met, while the sweeping John Williams score guides the audience’s emotions toward the prescribed magical! Our everyman hero will not be coming back. In fact, he is presented as a kind of messianic figure, embracing his sacrificial role as Ambassador of Earth in his cool nylon track suit while all the townspeople nod their approval as he walks away forever. For some reason when you are the Chosen One you can’t say no and it has to be a big deal with dozens of pedestrians watching. You must stare at the walls of the spaceship for a few minutes before doing anything. Take it all in, man.
In 1984 in Atlanta, cuddled on the couch together while the VHS-quality credits were rolling up a tiny Zenith screen, my not-yet mother casually asked her not-yet husband if he would get on the spaceship like Neary did, were he in that situation. Would he leave?
“Of course,” my not-yet dad said stupidly. “Are you kidding me?”
*cue a look of horror on my mother’s face*
(Keep in mind that at this point that, though close, my parents were not married and not attached to anything. Toying with the idea, perhaps, but their relationship was in its adolescence. Discussions needed to be had before the Question could be popped. Confessions made, movies watched, etc. There’s a serious screening process for choosing a life-long mate, apparently it’s called ‘dating.’)
My mother was merely role-playing a hypothetical scenario about the value of family versus what I would call the “value of aliens,” but nonetheless the implications of my dad’s response were real. “You would leave me?” she said, head cocked. “You would leave our children?”
A few years ago, after having readapted War of the Worlds (which, by the way, is Close Encounters‘ thematic inverse, i.e. a father reuniting with his family battling against towering malevolent Martians), Spielberg confessed in an interview that the ending to Close Encounters was written “blithely.” “That was before I had kids,” he said, though it may as well have been my own father saying that. “Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family and going on the mother ship.” You mean you would write a character who doesn’t abandon his family? How admirable.
Back in the 80’s, my not-yet parents had a very real argument over that ending. From what I understand the argument lasted at least a few weeks, and it might have prevented them from marrying at all had my mother not said to herself, “He doesn’t mean it. When he has kids, he’ll feel differently.” No movie was going to split them up. So they argued, got over it, got married, had kids and created the kind of family that Spielberg wasn’t anticipating when he wrote the script back in 1977. Take that.
Discovering this quirky gem of family history was pretty exciting for a 16 year-old sci-fi nerd like me. I had so many questions! Do you still feel that way, Dad? (No. *cue wife’s approval*) You actually got mad at him for this, Mom? (Yes.) What if I hadn’t been born because of Close Encounters! (We know.) Seriously, what if I hadn’t been born because of Close Encounters? Holy shit, guys.
Years later I admitted to my father that if I found out he had been handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel across the Universe with an alien race, only to turn it down so he could stay with his cosmically insignificant family here on Earth — I would have been disappointed. “You would never get that chance again,” I told him, “I wouldn’t be able to forgive you for that.” I was about 70% serious. How proud I could be of a father who takes such an incredible leap of faith, even if that leap means abandoning me! That’s my father out there exploring the Unknown, forging a new path for mankind! There’s a little bit of his adventurous spirit inside of me, too.
But in light of the alleged claim that he would, having fathered me, grudgingly stick around for my sake and the sake of his family — to see me get married or to continue supporting his wife, I keep coming back to these questions: Am I really worth turning down a free space trip? Is anyone? I mean, how mad could I be if I would do the same? Would I do the same? People deal with absent fathers all the time. I don’t think it’s right, but I acknowledge it as a reality of life. We’re trained to think there is no dignity in leaving your family, yet ’77 Spielberg makes it seem like the most noble thing a man could do. Perhaps “Dad’s in space” would be far more honorable than “Dad’s in jail” (right?), but a human axiom is that little boys look up to their fathers — absent or not — and say I want to be just like him. It obviously sets a bad precedent. Whether in space or in jail, at the end of the day, if Dad’s not home, Dad’s not home.
Fathers who abandon their children in real life must somehow think the way Roy Neary does — that the world itself will be far more fulfilling than fatherhood could ever be. They must view their cars (or trains, etc.) as alien spacecrafts. Get in and go explore the world. Leave this dump behind. Maybe in some strange way the role of Father in a child’s life is meant to balance that child’s concept of self with the enormity of the cosmos; If papa was a rollin’ stone, then the world at large was always more interesting to him than his child was — and that’s how the child is going to evaluate his own self-worth as he matures into a free-thinking adult. The universe is better than I am. But if dad stuck around, that means I am as good as the universe, or maybe even better (depending on how cruel the world has been to the old man). Haven’t studies linked self-confidence with parental involvement? On the flip side, the one thing an absent father can’t disappoint is his child’s imagination, and Roy Neary’s kids may grow up thinking their dad is “awesome” because of all the great stories they can dream up, but Roy Neary won’t be around to confirm one way or another whether he is, in fact, awesome. Roy Neary won’t be able to tell anyone about what he sees, most especially his children. His kids will never know they might be just as interesting or as grand as the rest of the world is made out to be. Roy Neary will be all alone up in that ship (surrounded by aliens, sure, but who can relate to those guys?) and one day he will look out of the window at beautiful Andromeda with her sparkling purple spirals and think to himself, I wish my kids could see this.
I admit that I don’t necessarily know anything about absent fathers, since that wasn’t my upbringing. I also concede that I’m writing from the perspective of a son, and I’d be curious to get a daughter’s take on this as well, or a wife’s. Still, when I first heard about the now infamous Close Encounters fight my parents had (which ultimately is not a huge stain on their relationship) I didn’t have to have a psychology degree to think that maybe — just maybe — my dad would have gotten on that ship if he had the chance, that somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind he might love the universe a little bit more than he loves me.
Close Encounters ends the way it does — abruptly, that is, and we don’t get to see where Neary goes or find out what he learns — because Steven Spielberg has no goddamn clue what galactic mysteries hiding out in space could possibly be better than having a family here on Earth. He doesn’t know, and we don’t know and John Williams’ epic score doesn’t know.
I don’t know, either. My father is at work right now and never had to make the kind of choice that Neary did, thank God. I’m certainly glad he’s here now, that much I know. But more to the point, I’ve decided that turning down a trip across space is a good idea if the deal is you have to go it alone. We’re humans and even if we would love to see the far reaches of the universe during the day, by night’s end we just want a human party. Human affection. Human conversation. Yesterday at work an older co-worker complained that having kids “prevents you from doing anything you ever wanted to do in this life.” Well, Roy, the ship’s waiting. We won’t miss you.
(End of spoiler.)