This is a concept that has always intrinsically appealed to me, that of spiritual transcendence via interplanetary contact. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and De Palma's Mission to Mars are the only films I can think of besides Spielberg's film that liken extra-terrestrial contact to a religious experience. In terms of practical, scientific concepts of God, alien life would be just about the closest we could come in the known Universe. The notion that we're not alone in the Universe is one that is extremely humbling, and the notion of life reaching out to other life is one that I've always found to be incredibly profound. Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn't cast the aliens into a generic monster role--- though it does acknowledge that fear is a natural reaction to alien contact, but rather these aliens are benevolent harbingers of goodwill. Which makes sense, as I can't imagine life-forms making their way across the Universe (can you imagine the traffic?) simply to blow the shit out of us, as so many films seem to depict (including Spielberg's own War of the Worlds).
Since Spielberg is a deeply spiritual film maker, it's no wonder that he would treat the idea of alien contact with a God-like awe. He recognizes that religion, art, and science are all separate means to the same end: to better comprehend the world around us. Spielberg is criticized for so often using aliens as plot devices in his films, but I don't see this as a problem. The profound rumination on narrative in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed to fly over the heads of the Nuke the Fridge crowd, who were more interested in focusing on trivial semantics than sub-textual meaning. Spielberg's interchanging of religion and science fiction as the central McGuffin is actually a perfect articulation of the themes of emotional and psychological interchangeability that he has been making films about most of his career. And it started with Close Encounters.
Though there is a big difference between the first cut of the film and the 1997 edition, my preferred cut of the film, and that focus is what I feel makes the difference between a flawed work of undeniable vision and a perfect distillation of a mature artist. The original 1977 cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is kind of all over the place and the parts lack cohesiveness, to the point that they almost feel disjointed from the whole. This is because the 1977 edition hones in less on the Roy Neary narrative, and thus the film has no real emotional center. Rather, the 1977 cut has an ideological focus instead, and this makes it feel almost like an Altman-esque network narrative. While the intent is certainly ambitious, ultimately, I don't feel as though it works as strongly as it could have. I love the movie in all its forms (and I plan on writing about the three versions here at Medfly someday), but I also feel that Spielberg's maturation over the course of 20 years ultimately helped make the film everything it should have been in the first place. He found the film's emotional center in the odyssey of Roy Neary over that time, and thus found his voice.
I saw an interview with Spielberg where he described where he got the idea to make Close Encounters (naturally, I have been unable to find the interview subsequently, otherwise I'd post it). He was driving alone at night and came to a large, empty field. He stopped there and laid looking at the night sky, and suddenly he got the vision of a UFO landing in the exact spot he was, and the aliens inviting him to go with them. He honestly thought to himself about what he would do in the event that this situation arose--- and came to the conclusion that he wouldn't go with aliens, in spite of his curiosity. This notion bothered him so much that he left his spot as quickly as he could.
So, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is in part about dealing with the fear of alien contact as well as the massive psychological weight that such a revelation would carry with it. When Roy Neary first sees the flying saucer, its light is literally overpowering; it blinds him, burns him, and damns him in a sense. It awakens his senses to something beyond his job, his wife, his children, and even his planet--- but there are consequences to this enlightenment. This knowledge comes with a very deep price, as Roy Neary's simple life has been forever altered, for better or worse. The light, or rather the light's implications, consume him to the point where he is at the very edge of sanity.
On a shallow level, we could say Spielberg made this film about running away from parental responsibility. Roy goes on a roller coaster ride with funny looking little men to get out of being a husband, father, and working a 9-5. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes the decision Roy has to make seriously, acknowledging the damage that Roy's obsession was causing within his family. Though this is another aspect underdeveloped in the 1977 cut, because Roy himself is underdeveloped--- Spielberg skirts around the issue of parental abandonment in the original cut, perhaps because he's scared of it. Because Close Encounters in its original form is about avoiding parental responsibility, Spielberg more or less spends the scenes with Roy's family building a case for Roy's eventual abandonment of them--- in the 1997 cut, the issue certainly isn't as cut and dry, because he more vividly paints a picture of Roy's family dynamics. Again, Spielberg's maturation over 20 years helped him flesh out themes that were initially only on the surface.
Like Lynch's Eraserhead, made the same year, Close Encounters also articulates apprehensions about being a father--- about resigning yourself to being a 'family man'. Spielberg has said that, if he'd made the film today, he never would have had Roy Neary leave his wife and kids behind--- because, having become a father, he knows in his heart that's something he would never do, regardless of the circumstance. This is understandable, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind was made before he was a father, and what we're left with is a film that shrugs parental responsibility in favor of a joy-ride round the Universe. Maybe it's my youth, but the idea of having children pretty much makes me want to run to the hills, so this is another aspect of Roy that I connect with. Maybe if I were a father, I would think of this character differently.
I think we've all felt like we simply didn't belong at some point in our life. The feeling of isolation can lead us to dark places. This is, of course, an ongoing theme in Spielberg's career (E.T., Empire of the Sun, Amistad, A.I., and The Terminal have that theme as their either main or tertiary focus), and it's probably a large part of why I connect with his films. He so perfectly enters the subjective frame of mind of the 'outsider' that we feel like we're there with him, on the outside looking in. In High School, when I first saw the film, the idea of leaving the world behind and going on a transcendental journey of cosmic enlightenment is one that struck a deep personal chord (especially having just seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a few months before). I remember feeling like, in many ways, High School was actually suffocating my internal growth and quest for knowledge, and Spielberg's film is one of the key experiences that awakened me to things beyond my day-to-day existence.
It's Richard Dreyfuss' eyes that speak to me most in the performance, and the sad longing that they convey. The notion that something inexplicable, intangible, is just missing. Since the beginning of mankind, we have looked to the stars for answers as to our place among them, and we have channeled these existential queries into our art. Spielberg takes this one-step further by making the stars themselves the answer--- that wordless, cosmic mystery that drives us to make sculptures out of our dinner and found garbage. The childlike awe that is the only reasonable reaction to a notion so extraordinary. He conveys these mind expanding and earth-shattering themes through Roy Neary, which is why the character touches my heart in a way like no other character does.