The aliens in Close Encounters don't just land on the White House lawn, throw up a peace sign, and announce, "We come in peace. Everyone chill." Lacking knowledge of how humans communicate, they don't have that option.
Instead, they try those universal languages of math, music, and imagery. They introduce the five-tonal phrase, send an RSVP using longitude and latitude coordinates, and implant images of Devils Tower into people's brains (think: technological telepathy). Since the humans don't get it, there's a lot of fear and uncertainty. Not until some common ground is established during the climactic encounter does the fear turn to wonder and amazement.
The earthlings have their own intraspecies communications problems: They all speak different languages and require interpreters to figure out what they're saying. Then there's all the techie language. Lots of it is left unexplained—we just watch the scientists or air traffic controllers do their thing. It creates that feeling of "What's going on?" that mirrors exactly the experiences of the characters as they struggle to figure out what's happening.
Spielberg rolls this all up into one big lesson: if we all just listen to each other, things will be okay.
Questions About Language and Communication
- How does communication help Roy and Lacombe in their quests to learn about the aliens? How does this help us understand this theme in Close Encounters?
- Why does communication break down between Roy and Ronnie?
- We never ultimately learn what the extraterrestrials have to say. Why do you think their communication remains untranslated by the end of the film? Why is this important to our understanding of this theme?
- Would you say the extraterrestrials' attempts at communication were ultimately successful?
Chew on This
The film's message is that the success of relationships depends on communication.
The film's message is that some experiences defy communication.