Study Guide

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Hero's Journey

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Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Ordinary World

We're introduced to Roy's version of the ordinary world, suburbia in the 1970s. Of course, since the 1970s is the decade that gave us pet rocks, dashboard hula girls and the leisure suit, the term "ordinary" will be used loosely here.

As for Roy, he works as an electrician, has three children and a wife. He's just your average, American guy with an average American family.

Call to Adventure

Roy's call to adventure is an actual phone call, so that's convenient for our analysis. His boss informs him that power's being lost all over the grid for some unknown reason. Roy is sent out to Tolono to investigate but gets lost on the back roads en route.

Refusal of the Call

The refusal of the call is when the hero fears continuing his adventure. Roy's refusal is incredibly brief, but we're counting it all the same. After his encounter with a UFO, Roy is visibly, and understandably, shaken. But it isn't long before Roy's fear turns into curiosity and exhilaration, and he begins chasing the UFO to find answers.

Meeting the Mentor

Roy doesn't meet his mentor character, Lacombe, until much later in the film, so this stage is a bit tweaked for his adventure. Rather than meet his mentor, this stage sees Roy looking for answers from anyone who might know what's going on. He goes to the UFO-watchers' hill to find these answers.

Crossing the Threshold

While Roy doesn't find his mentor on the hill, he does cross the threshold and commits to his quest to discover the truth about the UFOs. He doesn't see another UFO that night, but he does notice little Barry building mud into a mountainous shape. He realizes it's the same shape he's been imagining since his own encounter. Roy dedicates himself to discovering the truth behind the UFOs and the mysterious mountain image.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Roy's allies become other UFO believers. These include Julian and, less helpfully, Farmer, who's also a Bigfoot enthusiast. Apparently UFOs are one thing, but Bigfoot? Don't be ridiculous.

His enemies include Project Bluebook government officials, who hold a press conference to inform believers that there's no concrete evidence for UFOs. His wife, Ronnie, also becomes his opponent. Disturbed by the changes in her husband, she tries to convince him his experiences are delusional.

Roy's tests come from the tension his obsession causes within his family. Ronnie eventually packs up the kids and splits, alarmed by Roy's bizarre behavior.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

The inmost cave is the place where the hero will find the object of his quest. During his approach, the hero's burdened with more setbacks, and it's the same for Roy. With a surge of inspiration, Roy trashes his kitchen to make a giant sculpture, and Ronnie leaves, taking the children with her. With his family absent, Roy's life becomes reclusive chaos as he devotes all his time to the mystery. He soon discovers the way to his inmost cave, Devils Tower. Granted, that's a mountain, which is like the opposite of a cave, but just work with us here. Symbolically they're the same.


During this stage, Roy must deal with government agents as well as face death. Sure, it's not actual death, since the chemical spill is a story the military devised to scare people from the area. But Roy's only guessing that the chemical spill is a lie. He brings a gas mask just in case. Roy's detained and interrogated; it looks like he'll never find out what's going on.

Reward (Seizing the Sword)

About to be evacuated via helicopter, Roy removes his gas mask and breathes in the air—he's afraid, but he doesn't die. He now knows the government's story is a lie, and he's even more determined to learn the truth.

The Road Back

Roy's road back doesn't lead him to Muncie, Indiana, but forward toward Devils Tower. With Jillian and Larry, he escapes from the helicopter and makes his way to the alien landing site on the mountain.


Roy's tested again at the alien landing site, and as the name of this stage suggests, he's reborn here. After watching the initial contact between humans and aliens, Roy sneaks onto the landing site and watches the arrival the mother ship. Lacombe secures him a position in Project Mayflower, a group of explorers who will go with the aliens. Roy's no longer an average Joe but an explorer on the brink of a new frontier.

Return With the Elixir

In Close Encounters, our hero doesn't return to the ordinary world where his adventure started. He instead joins the extraterrestrials on their galactic goodwill tour. His elixir is his knowledge of alien existence, and the ending promises that he's going to be getting quite an education on his trip around the universe.

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