Roy Neary is just your average guy working his nine-to-five as an electrician when he has a paranormal experience involving an UFO.
This can mean only one of two things: He's a character in a science fiction movie or he has recently signed a contract with the History Channel.
Since you're reading this here, you can safely assume it's the former—although that doesn't mean the latter isn't in the works.
Roy's Our Boy
Roy is the Spielbergian protagonist of Close Encounters, the hero of the film. He's an ordinary guy who encounters a strange phenomenon, sets out to discover the mystery behind it, and succeeds against all odds. But his heroic qualifications aren't what you'll find on a typical hero's resume. He isn't strong or wise and he can't do whatever a spider can. He didn't ask for this alien encounter. Instead, he's the hero because he's a big kid. Lots of Spielberg heroes are.
We see this right away as he's introduced to us playing with toy trains—sorry, model train set—and his wife, Ronnie, asks him what they want to do this weekend. Roy tries to convince his children they want to go to the movies but does so in the most un-adult way possible:
ROY: Okay. Now, I'm going to give you your choice, I'm not going to be biased in any way. Tomorrow night you can either play Goofy Golf, which means a lot of waiting and shoving and pushing and probably getting a zero, or you can see Pinocchio, which is a lot of furry animals and magic and you'll have a wonderful time. Okay? Now, let's vote.
BRAD AND TOBY: Golf!
First of all, not all those furry animals are fun in Pinocchio. That scene at Pleasure Island? Freaking terrifying. Second, this scene immediately informs us about the type of man-child Roy is. His persuasive techniques are right out of the third grader's peer pressure handbook.
As film writers Donald R. Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders note, "The Disney echoes suggest the chameleon effect Spielberg wants—for the adults to become kids again and experience wonder, mystery, and fascination. Roy is propelled toward his alien rendezvous because he is just a big kid" (Source).
After Roy's UFO encounter, we see more examples of what they mean. He bursts into his bedroom and wakes up Ronnie like a kid on Christmas:
ROY: Ronnie, listen. I never would have believed it. There was this—in the cab—this whole—there was a red whoosh that—
He can't explain what he saw or why it is important, but he's bursting with excitement over it. His insistence they drive to the hill immediately, rather than take a moment for calm, slow reflection, is also childishly impulsive. Although Ronnie's skeptical, he's got to find the truth behind his initial UFO encounter.
Roy Neary seems like a fun guy to have as your pop. He's got toys, trains, and a playful sense of humor; he likes Disney movies; he's got tons of energy; he's not that much taller than you. But all those childlike qualities come with a downside: he's impulsive, restless, and ultimately irresponsible. He forgets about his family and agrees, it seems without a second thought about when or if he'll return, to board an alien spacecraft and head off to distant galaxies.
Roy's UFO obsession causes friction between him and his family as their normal life starts falling apart. The children cry at dinner as Roy sculpts the mashed potatoes. He tries to reassure them:
ROY: I've guessed you've noticed something a little strange with dad. It's okay, though. I'm still dad. I can't describe it, what I'm feeling. What I'm thinking. [Points to potato sculpture.] This means something. It's important.
Roy's tormented by his vision. He's compelled to try to create it, but nothing feels right. Ronnie's not convinced; she tries to get him into family therapy. But he gets even crazier. He raids the neighborhood for raw materials to build his giant mountain sculpture. He pulls up bushes, smashes bricks through windows, and borrows chicken wire from the neighbor's yard.
Roy doesn't consider the scene he's making or the damage he's doing. He's too obsessed to wonder how his actions will emotionally affect his wife and kids. He's in his own world, just trying to figure out what this image means.
As a result, Ronnie takes the kids and drives to her sister's home. She feels like Roy is acting like an incorrigible kid. Without his family responsibilities, Roy's free to do what he has to do to see what's behind the mountain image that's captured him.
Maybe when Ronnie finds out that Roy's living his dream, she'll be happy for him, and guilty that she didn't take his UFO quest seriously. More likely, she's scrambling for daycare when she has to go back to work to support the family and figuring out how to get a divorce from a guy on the other side of the Milky Way. Roy, as brave and fun and adventurous as he is, is a deadbeat dad.
Where a Kid Can Be a Kid
Roy's childlike curiosity eventually pays off. He finds himself in front of an alien mother ship. He watches a group of childlike aliens emerge from it and pull Roy from the group. They surround him and playfully lead him into the ship. He beams like a kid with the biggest ice cream cone ever.
Maybe Roy had to become like a child to get to this next stage of his evolution. It reminds Shmoop of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the space traveler actually does morph into a new type of existence: a star-child.
According to film professor J.P. Telotte:
The film suggests that Neary and, by extension, the rest of humankind, might grow to a new maturity, one in which he will be able to maintain a sense of that child within, or at least that childlike wonder and naïveté that are ultimately necessary for opening up to and understanding the human place in the universe. (Source)
Of course, his family pays the price for all that childlike wonder, as film critic Erich Kuersten writes:
Of course Roy manages to escape yet again, and this time he's given an orange jumpsuit and sent right on up in the spaceship with the aliens, freeing him from worry about massive debt, custody battles, and home foreclosure. (Source)
To all of you who insist on bringing up the fact that Roy has just abandoned his family on earth to go cruising with aliens across the galaxy: just stop it. You're ruining the happy ending.