Study Guide

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Summary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Summary

In the midst of a swirling sandstorm, French scientist Claude Lacombe and his interpreter, David Laughlin, join other UFO researchers in making a shocking discovery. Abandoned in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico are the five planes from Flight 19, Navy bombers that went missing over the Bermuda Triangle in 1945.

How they ended up in the desert, in mint condition with fuel in the tanks and family photos in the cockpits, is a bit of a puzzle.


Lacombe, Laughlin, and the team globetrot their way from one unexplained phenomenon to another. They locate the Cotopaxi, a ship that went missing in the Bermuda Triangle in 1925, in the landlocked Gobi Desert of Mongolia. In India, they investigate a group of men chanting a five-tone hymn they claim to have learned from the heavens. Back in America, a research team transmits the five-tonal phrase into space and receives a signal from an unknown entity, providing them coordinates that point to Wyoming.

While the research team is doing its thing, the UFOs visit Muncie, Indiana. Whatever their reasons for visiting Muncie—the cars or the cows or Ball State University's geothermal energy project—they wake up three-year-old Barry Guiler, who goes outside to follow the pretty lights and say hi to his new friends. His mother, Jillian, awakens to see her son wander into the woods, and goes running to retrieve him.

When the UFO presence messes with power grids across the county, electrician Roy Neary is sent to fix the problem and has a close encounter with a UFO on a back road. Roy becomes obsessed with his unexplainable experience while his wife, Ronnie, tries to convince him to forget it. He begins to see a mysterious shape half-formed in his mind. He desperately sculpts the shape from anything he can get his hands on—clay, shaving cream, mashed potatoes—but nothing looks right.

He's a total emotional wreck.

The UFOs revisit Barry and Jillian. They play a game of haunted house tag with Barry, much to Jillian's horror. She tries to get him, but Barry escapes through the doggy door and is abducted.

Back at the government's UFO research headquarters, the military's trying to figure out a way to keep the populace out of the vicinity of the Wyoming landing site the aliens have apparently proposed. They decide to spread information that there's a chemical spill that's emitting toxic gases that makes it necessary to evacuate people pronto.

Meanwhile, Roy continues to obsess over his close encounter.

He's getting more and more anguished about not being able to understand what's happening to him. His family is freaked out by his behavior. When Roy starts shoveling dirt and shrubs into the kitchen to build a giant sculpture, that's the last straw for Ronnie. She packs the children into the car and drives away.

Alone, Roy changes into an obsessed recluse, constructing a giant model of a laccolith in his living room. By a huge coincidence, Roy notices a news story about a chemical spill near Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Devil's Tower looks exactly like the mountainous image he's been preoccupied with.

Roy jumps in the car and heads for Wyoming; he sees Jillian there. They sneak into the evacuation zone with Roy believing, rightly so, that the chemical spill story is a government coverup. They're both captured, and Roy is interrogated by Lacombe and Laughlin. After the interrogation, Lacombe tries to convince Major Walsh that the people drawn to Devil's Tower should be allowed to stay. They've been "invited."

Roy and Jillian manage to escape and find their way to Devil's Tower. There, they find a landing site the government built for the alien arrival. Hidden in a rocky outcrop, they watch as the research team makes first contact, communicating with three UFOs using the five-tonal phrase and a rock concert's worth of gear.

After a conversation of light and sound, the mother ship lands and opens its bay doors. A host of abductees walk out of the ship, including the somewhat dazed Flight 19 pilots, a cheerleader, and a dog.

And Barry.

Jillian and Barry are reunited, while Lacombe locates Roy in the crowd to ask him what he wants. Roy responds that he just wants to know it's really happening. Lacombe pulls some strings and gets Roy a spot on Project Mayflower, a group of scientists and astronauts chosen to go with the aliens. As adorable aliens gently lead Roy aboard the mother ship, he turns to give Lacombe and Jillian a final smile goodbye.

One final alien emerges from the mother ship to meet Lacombe. Unable to talk to the creature, Lacombe teaches it the sign language for the five-tonal phrase. The alien repeats the motion, and they smile at each other. The mother ship leaves with Roy aboard and continues its journey through the universe…probably to pick up other intergalactic hitchhikers.

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    • A group of researchers, including French scientist Claude Lacombe and his interpreter, David Laughlin, arrive in the windswept Sonoran Desert in Mexico to investigate a mystery.
    • Officials have discovered Flight 19, a group of five U.S. Navy Avenger torpedo-bombers who disappeared on a training mission over the Bermuda triangle. (Source)
    • Why the bombers are in the Sonoran Desert in mint condition is a total mystery. They've got fuel in the tanks and family photos in the cockpits. When technicians turn on the ignition, they start right up.
    • Local officials bring Lacombe to an elderly man who says he witnessed the event. The man's face is sunburned.
    • Lacombe questions him, and the old man says the sun came out in the night and sang to him. Who wants to bet the sun is a Beatles fan?
  • Scene 2

    Scene 2

    • At the Indianapolis Air Traffic Control Center, two pilots call in an unidentified flying object in their flight path.
    • They report it has insanely bright anti-collision lights. The object almost hits one of the planes and then flies away.
    • Air Traffic Control asks the pilots if they wish to officially report a UFO. Neither pilot wants anything to do with that idea.
  • Scene 3

    Scene 3

    • In Muncie, Indiana, three-year-old Barry Guiler awakens to find his creepy electronic toys turning on by themselves in a scene of uncut nightmare fodder.
    • Who ever thought that those monkeys with cymbals were a fun idea?
    • Barry wanders downstairs to find that his refrigerator has been raided by a klutzy house guest. The kitchen's a disaster.
    • And now, a word from the movie's painfully obvious product placement, Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola: The refreshment choice of all extraterrestrial visitors since 1977.
    • Barry's mother, Jillian, wakes up to see Barry outside, giggling as he runs into the woods, following…something.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    • Chaos ensues as Roy Neary and his family decide between seeing Pinocchio or playing goofy golf—although this level of chaos might be the norm for the Neary household.
    • Roy gets a phone call from his boss telling him to get to Tolono pronto; power outages are being reported all across the grid. With perfect dramatic timing, the power outage hits the Neary household.
    • The power continues to go out across the county, even hitting the local McDonald's. Now that's a tragedy.
    • (McDonald's: Now with extra comfortable parking lots for the small-town teenage loiterers.)
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    • Jillian searches for Barry in the woods.
    • Roy gets lost looking for Tolono.
    • Parking his car in the middle of the road, he tries checking a bunch of maps to find his way.
    • He waves another vehicle on, and the passenger insults Roy as they drive by. Roy calls him a turkey. Whoa, watch it, Roy. This is a family show.
  • Scene 6

    Scene 6

    • Roy stops again to double-check his maps. Another set of lights appear behind him, and he waves them on.
    • This time, the lights fly up. Right over his vehicle.
    • The UFO's presence causes the truck to lose power and all the stuff inside to spontaneously freak out and float around.
    • Mailboxes next to the truck rattle like they're in a hurricane.
    • After it passes by, Roy sits transfixed by his experience. He's sunburned on half his face.
    • Hearing radio transmissions about the UFO, he comes to his senses and takes off after it.
  • Scene 7

    Scene 7

    • Barry runs into the middle of a road and sees people watching for UFOs. Evidently, lots of people have seen it or heard about it.
    • Jillian catches up with her son just as Roy's truck barrels around the bend.
    • She snatches her son and dives off the road just in time.
    • Roy steers to the side of the road, gets out, and apologizes to Jillian for not seeing Barry.
    • Four UFOs fly by and are quickly followed by four police cars in hot pursuit. Roy hops into his truck and joins the police in the chase.
  • Scene 8

    Scene 8

    • The police chase the UFOs into Ohio. The UFOs zoom through some toll booths without paying—their force field makes the toll booth barrier arm go up. It's a pretty funny moment.
    • One of the cops, thinking he's in a John Landis film, drives his vehicle off the hillside and crashes.
    • The others stop and watch the UFOs fly off into the horizon.
  • Scene 9

    Scene 9

    • Roy wakes up Ronnie and his kids and rushes them into his truck. He drives them to the hillside to look for the UFOs.
    • Not taking her husband's experience very seriously, Ronnie reminisces about when they'd visit hillsides just to snuggle.
    • She kisses Roy; he keeps his eyes planted firmly on the sky.
  • Scene 10

    Scene 10

    • UN officials off-road through the Gobi Desert. Their destination is the Cotopaxi, a ship that disappeared from the Bermuda Triangle in 1925 but just showed up in Mongolia. (Source)
    • No wonder it's been lost for so long; who'd-a thought to look for it in a land-locked desert halfway across the world?
  • Scene 11

    Scene 11

    • Ronnie cuts out a newspaper article about the UFO sightings while the boys play a prank on Roy, who pranks them right back.
    • Roy gets ready to shave but looks hypnotized as soon as he looks at the shaving cream in his hand. He begins sculpting the shaving cream into a mountainous shape.
    • Ronnie creates a story to explain Roy's Two-Face sunburn in hopes of putting the weird situation to rest.
    • Roy wants to find out what happened to him and plans to go the hillside again. They argue about it like, well, a married couple.
    • The phone rings and Roy's bosses tell Ronnie he's been fired for not showing up for work the night of his UFO encounter. Harsh.
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    • In Dharmsala, India, Lacombe and the other researchers arrive to a chaotic scene. Crowds of people are running through the streets, and others, including Jerry Garcia (really), are sitting and reverently chanting 5 musical notes. Hint: It's not "Sugar Magnolia."
    • Lacombe asks about where the sounds came from. A man addresses the group in Hindi to ask them, and all of the hands shoot up and point toward the sky.
    • Apparently, they didn't just come from a Grateful Dead concert.
  • Scene 13

    Scene 13

    • Lacombe demonstrates the five-tone music phrase to UN researchers and delegates by using a sign language system designed to teach deaf children music. He believes the tonal phrase is important somehow.
    • The audience applauds, recognizing that he's discovered something of significance.
  • Scene 14

    Scene 14

    • Roy joins a crowd watching for UFOs on the hillside. There, he reconnects with Jillian and Barry.
    • Barry's playing with mud and Roy recognizes the mountain-like shape he's making.
    • Roy explains that, ever since the UFO incident, he's been seeing that shape in everything, and he believes it means something important.
    • Lights appear on the horizon and everyone's excited to welcome their new E.T. neighbors to the neighborhood.
    • But the lights turn out to be helicopters that fly over the crowd because… reasons.
    • Roy sees the helicopter downdraft shaking a sign like the UFO did and begins to question exactly what it was he saw.
    • We guess that was the point.
  • Scene 15

    Scene 15

    • At the Goldstone Radio Telescope Station 14 in California (a real place, BTW), researchers are broadcasting the five-tonal phrase heard in India and getting no response.
    • Suddenly, they start receiving a jumble of pulses representing a seemingly meaningless series of numbers. Laughlin—a professional cartographer if you'll recall—recognizes them as coordinates.
    • The researchers steal-borrow a globe from the supervisor's office and discover that the coordinates point to a location near Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
  • Scene 16

    Scene 16

    • Jillian's been sketching a picture of a mountain and Barry's banging out the 5-tone phrase on his toy xylophone, when the UFOs pay another visit. Clearly, images and sounds have been implanted in their brains, too.
    • The spaceship's electromagnetic field messes with all their appliances and electronics, and the extraterrestrials try various ways to get into the house. The scene is right out of an alien-invasion horror film—bright lights, screws unscrewing themselves, windows and doors banging, a force field coming down the chimney.
    • Jillian tries to protect Barry, but her son follows the lights through the doggy door and is gone, gone, gone.
  • Scene 17

    Scene 17

    • Jillian is harassed by reporters who want a quote for the 6 o'clock news regarding the statement she gave to the police.
    • The Air Force holds a press conference to discuss the UFO phenomenon with the press and believers.
    • The Air Force's official stance is that there are no UFOs. At one point, a man mentions he saw Bigfoot once.
    • The press conference goes off the rails after that and Roy draws the mountain shape on his newspaper, snapping the pencil in frustration.
  • Scene 18

    Scene 18

    • The government prepares for a large-scale operation in Wyoming. A group of astronaut-looking uniformed people enter a bus while a suit wonders what's in store for them.
    • Major Walsh and some officials try to devise a story so horrific that it'll scare everyone within a 300-square-mile radius to evacuate.
    • Once the planning's complete, the government moves out in trucks labeled Baskin Robbins, Piggly Wiggly, and Coca-Cola. (This government coverup brought to you by Baskin Robbins. Baskin Robbins: the 32nd flavor is conspiracy.)
  • Scene 19

    Scene 19

    • During a family dinner, Roy begins to sculpt the mountain image with his mashed potatoes.
    • As his worried family watches, Roy tells his children that he's still their father, and although he doesn't know what the image means, he knows it's important.
    • Okay, Dad, whatever you say.
    • Later that night, Roy angrily tries to sculpt the mountain-like image out of clay but can't get it right. Running outside, he screams at the sky for answers.
  • Scene 20

    Scene 20

    • Ronnie awakens to hear Roy running the shower and crying. Breaking into the bathroom, she sees Roy sitting under the water fully clothed.
    • Ronnie tries to convince Roy to start family therapy. Watching his father's meltdown, Brad starts slamming the door screaming, "Crybaby!"
    • Ronnie sends the kids to their room. Roy seeks comfort from her, but she continues to yell that Roy is wrecking the family.
    • Roy falls asleep staring at his mountain sculpture.
  • Scene 21

    Scene 21

    • Roy wakes up to his daughter watching a "Duck Dodgers of the 21st-and-a-Half Century" cartoon.
    • He seems to snap back to reality and decides to do away with his UFO obsession.
    • As he throws away all his articles and clippings, he breaks the top off of his mountain sculpture and has a Eureka moment.
    • That's the image he's been trying to sculpt.
  • Scene 22

    Scene 22

    • Ronnie awakens to a disheveled Roy digging through the garden in his bathrobe. In a manic craze, Roy begins tossing bushes, bricks, and chicken wire through the kitchen window.
    • He tries to explain to Ronnie that everything's all right, but she's less than convinced.
    • She bundles the kids into the car and decides to take the family to her sister's house.
    • Roy tries to have a rational conversation with her on the hood of the car, but she drives away, leaving Roy alone with his obsession.
  • Scene 23

    Scene 23

    • An unknown amount of time later, Roy is a sweaty, muddy mess after building a huge plateau-looking sculpture in his living room.
    • After a quick commercial from our sponsors—Budweiser, the beer of choice for UFO-obsessed recluses the world over—a news broadcast comes on TV.
    • The anchorman reports on a train disaster that's released a dangerous chemical gas near Devils Tower, Wyoming. Devils Tower looks suspiciously like the sculpture Roy's constructed.
    • Roy gets a phone call from Ronnie, and he agrees to do whatever it takes to get the family back together.
    • Meanwhile, the audience is seeing Devils Tower on TV (with Roy's sculpture in the shot at the same time) and we're screaming at Roy to look at it.
    • After an eternity (it seems), Roy turns his attention to the news broadcast and notices Devils Tower. He has a shock of recognition.
    • So does Jillian. She's also watching the TV and recognizes Devils Tower as the same mountain she's been obsessively drawing for weeks. A look of relief and joy comes over her face. She seems to know that Barry will be there.
  • Scene 24

    Scene 24

    • Roy heads to Utah and gets lost again. As he drives, he fumbles with maps and almost drives headfirst into the evacuees' cars.
    • He passes cattle lying on the side of the road, looking dead.
    • At the train station, he sees Jillian. It's chaos—evacuees shoving to get on trains, men hawking caged birds to use as tests of air quality.
    • Roy and Jillian buy some birds and drive on back roads into the evacuation zone. Both are astonished to see that Devils Tower really exists outside of their imaginations.
    • Believing—or more accurately hoping—that the deadly gas story is a fake, they drive closer to Devils Tower, but it isn't long before they're captured by the authorities.
  • Scene 25

    Scene 25

    • In an interrogation room, Lacombe, with Laughlin translating, questions Roy about his experiences. Lacombe eventually asks Roy directly if he's had a close encounter with something... unusual.
    • Lacombe shows Roy pictures of the others who were compelled to visit Devils Tower and asks him what he expected to find. Roy responds that he wants answers.
    • Laughlin and Lacombe begin speaking in French, and Roy demands some answers to his own questions about what the heck is going on.
  • Scene 26

    Scene 26

    • Roy's loaded onto a helicopter with the other people who felt compelled to travel to Devils Tower, including Jillian. Lacombe asks Major Walsh to delay the helicopter's departure.
    • Major Walsh asks why Lacombe brought these 12 people to the decontamination camp rather than the evacuation center, and Lacombe answers that their presence means something.
    • Major Walsh wonders if they were sent in to subvert the operation, but Lacombe disagrees. He knows their presence is important; he just doesn't know why. He shows him all the drawings these folks made of Devils Tower.
    • In the helicopter, Roy takes off his gas mask to test the air. On account that he didn't die, Roy convinces Jillian and another man that the air isn't really toxic.
    • The other people figure that if the government doesn't want them there, well, it's not their place to ask why.
    • The three make a run for it.
    • Lacombe tells Major Walsh that he must find out what's going on. He believes that there are many other people who had the same vision but that maybe weren't watching TV or didn't make the connection.
    • Major Walsh counters it might just be a coincidence, but Lacombe states his conviction that it's a "sociological event."
    • Actually he says it's an "event sociologique." We love him.
    • Looking out the window, he sees Roy, Jillian, and the other man running toward Devils Tower. He smiles and doesn't tell Major Walsh.
  • Scene 27

    Scene 27

    • Running toward the mountain, Roy introduces himself to the other man, Larry.
    • The people left in the helicopter are told to keep their gas masks on until they're airlifted out.
    • As soon as they're gone, the authorities take off their own gas masks.
    • Back at the decontamination center, Major Walsh receives orders to get them off the mountain in one hour. If he can't, the major is to dust the mountain with E-Z-four, a gaseous sleep agent.
    • Lacombe thinks this is a mistake, since Roy, Jillian and Larry were obviously "invited."
  • Scene 28

    Scene 28

    • Roy, Jillian, and Larry climb the mountain while hiding from the helicopters.
    • The soldiers searching for them get orders to retreat from the mountain. The Army decides to use E-Z-four.
  • Scene 29

    Scene 29

    • Larry stops to take a breather. The helicopter spots him and he gets a lung full of E-Z-four. He and the surrounding wildlife go down for a snooze.
    • Roy and Jillian almost make it to the other side when Roy slips and falls down the mountainside. Roy lies exhausted on the rock face, but Jillian's move-your-butt style of cheerleading motivates him.
    • They make it to the other side right before the helicopter dusts the E-Z-four. Suddenly they see the site prepared by the government for the alien arrival.
  • Scene 30

    Scene 30

    • The government officials test their equipment and then prepare for the UFO's arrival.
    • The guys in charge sound pretty calm, considering the circumstances, i.e., the most momentous event in the history of the planet.
    • The extraterrestrial visitors arrive in luminous style. From the rocky outcrops, Roy and Jillian watch, wide-eyed and laughing. They don't seem scared.
    • There are three spaceships, followed by a little blob of red light zipping along behind them.
    • (AMC Filmsite wrote that this light reminded them of Tinkerbell. Clap if you believe in aliens, boys and girls.)
    • The government officials begin communicating with the UFOs, using a giant synthesizer to play the five-tonal notes with corresponding light-up display.
    • The UFOs are shy at first but soon begin "talking." The musical back and forth is a conversation that would put any Laser Zeppelin show to shame.
  • Scene 31

    Scene 31

    • The UFOs fly away, and the government officials congratulate themselves on a job well done.
    • Show's over.
    • Wait. Not.
    • Clouds begin to gather around Devils Tower. Someone summons Lacombe and asks him to look up. He looks up.
    • Laughlin asks Lacombe what he sees. Lacombe responds that he doesn't know, but it's beautiful. (He says it in French, but fortunately Shmoop remembers its high school French.)
    • A whole new host of UFOs emerge and descend upon the site.
    • Roy decides he needs to go down there, but Jillian chooses to stay behind since Barry isn't there.
  • Scene 32

    Scene 32

    • The UFOs are gone, as the synthesizer plays the 5-tone phrase. Everyone's watching the skies. It's dead quiet.
    • Lacombe stands alone in the middle of the landing site.
    • Suddenly, the mother ship makes her grand entrance, and don't ask us how a city-sized spaceship managed to stay hidden behind Devils Tower because we haven't a clue. Movie magic? Stealth technology?
    • As it flies overhead, Neary finds his way onto the site. One technician looks like he's going to grab him, but he's just bumping him on his mad dash to the Porta-Potty. Not everyone's taking this well.
    • The ship lands near the site; everyone puts on sunglasses to deal with its brilliant light.
    • Everyone starts walking slowly toward the ship, and a voice on the speakers tells everyone except special teams to keep a distance of 25 meters.
    • The synthesizer player begins playing the five-tones.
    • The mother ship sputters a bit the first time—it's hard to play the tuba.
    • It finally responds to the 5-tone phrase, blowing out the windows of the control tower in the process. The musical conversation continues, as the aliens are teaching the humans a basic tonal vocabulary.
    • In the middle of all this, Jillian climbs down onto the site. She watches, giggling. Roy's laughing, too.
    • After the government computer recognizes the tonal message, it takes over the synthesizer, and a conversation of lights and sounds rocks the Casbah.
    • You know how your teachers always told you that music is a universal language? They were right.
    • If you listen to the last few seconds of the mother ship's conversations, you'll hear that two-note shark theme from Jaws. A little Spielberg inside humor.
  • Scene 33

    Scene 33

    • The mother ship opens its doors.
    • Some people drop to their knees or back away. Jillian, Roy, and Lacombe walk closer.
    • Out of the light, the pilots of Flight 19 slowly emerge; they haven't aged a day since 1945.
    • Lacombe introduces himself. The first pilot identifies himself, and a team member welcomes him home. The other pilots come out and are all accounted for.
    • (Fun fact: The older guy smoking a pipe in this scene is J. Allen Hynek, the UFOlogist who devised the system of classification of levels of alien encounters. He'd always wanted to see one of the third kind, we guess.)
    • A team member comments that Einstein was right, since the pilots haven't aged. The team leader jokes that Einstein was probably "one of them."
    • A motley assortment of abductees comes out, including Barry, who's reunited with Jillian. Guess they were just borrowing these guys.
    • (Fun fact: Spielberg's dog had a cameo as the pooch-abductee sliding down the ramp out of the ship. He also acted in Jaws. The whole family must be in showbiz.)
    • Roy walks towards the abductees as they leave the ship.
    • Lacombe finds Roy in the crowd and asks him what he wants. Roy just wants to know it's all really happening. Lacombe nods.
    • Barry tells Jillian that he went up in the air and saw their house. He starts to cry when she tells him the ship is going to leave.
    • Lacombe gathers several government officials to discuss Roy's predicament. He rejoins Roy and says, "Monsieur Neary, I envy you."
  • Scene 34

    Scene 34

    • An alien emerges from the ship. Initially, it seems to have an almost arachnid quality to it, but after straightening out, it looks much more humanoid.
    • Many team members back way off; everyone looks a little anxious for the first time.
    • The extraterrestrial lifts up its arms in a gesture, we hope, of goodwill.
    • Other extraterrestrials emerge, and they look like the classic Roswell alien. (They're played by young girls.)
    • Roy is pulled aside by a government official who asks him about his age, inoculations, and family history.
    • Jillian and Barry watch things unfold from a deck above the site.
  • Scene 35

    Scene 35

    • A chaplain says a prayer for a group of people dressed like astronauts. As they file out of the building, we see Roy among them dressed in their spacefaring finest. He looks a little out of place. But happy.
    • The astronauts line up, and group of aliens pick Roy out of the line and gently guide him to the ship. John Williams sneaks "When You Wish Upon a Star" into the musical score here.
    • Roy looks back and gives Lacombe, Jillian, and Barry a beatific smile before boarding the mother ship.
    • We knew there was something special about him.
  • Scene 36

    Scene 36

    • A third-type of alien emerges, with kind, curious, eyes.
    • Lacombe signals it with the sign language for the five-tonal phrase. The alien signals the signs back. Lacombe and the extraterrestrial smile at each other.
    • The ET looks out at the assembled humans with a searching curiosity and compassion before returning to the ship.
    • The mother ship slowly lifts off as the government officials watch, and Barry solemnly calls out "bye" to his new extraterrestrial pals.
    • The five-tone theme swells into a full, gorgeous orchestral arrangement—a fitting accompaniment to the majestic craft lifting into the skies.