It's the question everybody asks when they read the title Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So they watch the movie, realize it's a good flick, and then ask the rolling credits, "So…wait! What's up with the title again?"
As usual, Shmoop to the rescue.
In his 1972 book, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, astronomer and UFO-logist Josef Allen Hynek classified UFO encounters into three categories:
- First Kind: Sighting of a UFO from 500 feet or closer
- Second Kind: Sighting of a UFO with associated physical effect
- Third Kind: Sighting of an animated/alien being (Source)
We know what you're thinking: How was I supposed to know that? And you're right, that's pretty esoteric stuff. In fact, it's so esoteric that the film's marketing campaign had to teach its potential audience what the term meant.
The original poster contained short explanations of the three kinds of encounters, and the original trailer has the film's crewmembers teaching the viewer the classifications. Unless you were around in 1977 or moonlighted as a paranormal investigator, chances are you were sick the day they taught it in school.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind has one foot in spoiler territory as it tells us upfront that someone will have a close encounter with an alien being. But it doesn't tell us what type of alien being it is, how close is close, and what the significance of that encounter will be. The mysterious title stokes our curiosity before the opening titles have even finished rolling.