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How UFO research influenced a Steven Spielberg film

Steven Spielberg is one of the biggest practitioners of sci-fi filmmaking, known for his extremely popular projects such as Jurassic Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence among others. His experiments with the genre have been enjoyed by fans across the globe as well as other pioneers of the same field such as Stanley Kubrick, who acts somewhat as a mentor to Spielberg.

One of Spielberg’s most interesting sci-fi films was his 1977 project Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a follow-up to his insanely successful Jaws which became the first summer blockbuster. Thanks to Jaws’ commercial returns, Spielberg was able to ask for a lot of creative control and managed to get an agreement that stated that he would make it his way.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss as an electric lineman who develops a frenzied obsession with UFOs and aliens after encountering something strange on an abandoned road, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a fascinating take on the existence of extraterrestrial entities. While other icons such as Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman were considered for the part, Dreyfuss became obsessed with the project himself and regularly approached Spielberg with ideas.

Many real life figures served as inspiration for the characters, including the UFO expert Jacques Vallée who influenced the construction of Claude Lacombe – a French scientist played by none other than the French New Wave maestro François Truffaut. In addition, the title of the film was actually inspired by the research of American professor Josef Allen Hynek.

One of the first researchers to embark on a concentrated effort to form a larger framework within which UFO sightings could be analysed, Hynek came up with a classification system called the “Close Encounter” which categorised sightings on the nature of the encounters themselves. One of those categories was called “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, the classification that eventually became the title of the film.

According to Hynek, this specific kind of encounter happens when a human being actually comes across a UFO which has a pilot inside irrespective of whether it is a robot or a living entity. Such an encounter has anthropological significance as well as it is called the moment of ‘first contact’, a term that is usually used to refer to the interactions between different human civilisations that have never met before.

While these research papers and theories influenced the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg also drew from his personal experiences. According to him, one specific memory acted as a primary driving force for him which involved his father taking him out to look at a meteor shower through a telescope in New Jersey.

“We got out there, and we lay down on his Army knapsack, and we looked up at the sky, and every 30 seconds or so there was a brilliant flash of light that streaked across the sky,” Spielberg recalled. “I just remember looking at the sky, because of the influence of my father, and saying, ‘If I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.'”

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