Close Encounters of the Third Kind

This Is Important. It Mean’s Something.

November 16, 2021

Perhaps more than any other element of this Academy Award Nominated (and win in one category) film, is its memorable five note musical sequence.

For those unfamiliar with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the five notes are how the extraterrestrials who make contact with earth communicate where they are going to set up shop, so to speak.

When this film premiered on November 16, 1977, it launched movie goers into a Science Fiction world which felt quite real.

Devil’s Tower looks nothing like this poster portrays it.

The premise of the movie is multi-faceted, but the main protagonist – played by Richard Dreyfuss – is key to telling the story of the arrival of extraterrestrials and humankind’s ‘close encounters of the third kind.’ We go to the Infallible Wikipedia for more information:

“At a rural home (In Indiana), three-year-old Barry Guiler wakes to find his toys operating on their own. He starts to follow something outside, forcing his mother, Jillian, to chase after him. Large-scale power outages begin rolling through the area, forcing electrician Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) to investigate. While he gets his bearings Roy experiences a close encounter with a UFO, and when it flies over his truck it lightly burns the side of his face with its lights. The UFO takes off with three others in the sky, as Roy and three police cars give chase. The spacecrafts fly off into the night sky but the metaphysical experience leaves Roy mesmerized. He becomes fascinated by UFOs to the dismay of his wife, Ronnie, and begins obsessing over subliminal images of a mountain-like shape, often making models of it. Jillian meanwhile also becomes obsessed, sketching the unique mountain image. Soon after, she is terrorized in her home by a UFO which descends from the clouds. She fights off violent attempts by the UFO and unseen beings to enter the home, but in the chaos Barry is abducted. (snip)

 Witnesses in Dharamsala, Northern India report that the UFOs make distinctive sounds: a five-tone musical phrase in a major scale. Scientists broadcast the phrase to outer space, but are mystified by the response: a seemingly meaningless series of numbers (104 44 30 40 36 10) repeated over and over until (scientist David) Laughlin, with his background in cartography, recognizes it as a set of geographical coordinates, which point to Devils Tower near Moorcroft, Wyoming. Lacombe and the U.S. military converge on Wyoming. The United States Army evacuates the area, planting false reports in the media that a train wreck has spilled a toxic nerve gas, all the while preparing a secret landing zone for the UFOs and their occupants.”

Despite the movie being firmly in the category of science fiction, it is Richard Dreyfuss’ character which provides the humanity needed to make the movie compelling and memorable. He does a superb job of portraying someone who has experienced a life altering traumatic event. Neary’s quest to go to Devil’s Tower sets up the dramatic final scenes and left audiences everywhere believing that such an encounter could truly happen.

If you have never seen the movie, it is one which was recognized in 2007 as “‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ by the United States Library of Congress, and was added to the National Film Registry for preservation. In American Film Institute polls, Close Encounters has been voted the 64th-greatest American film, the 31st-most thrilling, and the 58th-most inspiring. It was also nominated for the top 10 science fiction films in AFI’s 10 Top 10 and the tenth-anniversary edition of the 100 Movies list.The score by John Williams was nominated for AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores.”

I feel pretty certain I did not see it during its initial release. In the fall of 1977 and early winter of 1978, I was immersed in college life and, being perpetually broke and busy with other social events, it likely never made it to my radar screen.

But when I did eventually see it, the premise intrigued.

I had heard about UFO’s and was somewhat familiar with the legend of their appearance near Mt. Rainier in the late 1940’s. In January of 1980, as a reporter in Eatonville, Washington, I had the opportunity to consider if extraterrestrials could possibly be true and wrote about that experience in one of my blogs from a few years ago:

It was in 1989, however, when the hubby and I made it to Devil’s Tower to determine, first hand, if a giant alien ship really could have landed on top of that volcanic plug.

1989 was a ‘camping’ trip vacation and the hubby and I had a tent which we dubbed ‘Darth Vader.’ The reason for this was that the tent – when fully set up with the rain fly over it – looked a lot like the helmet worn by the Star War’s villain. Our first child had not yet arrived in the world although he was in process.

How Devil’s Tower looked during our 1989 trip

Since it was still early in the pregnancy, sleeping on an air mattress in a tent was acceptable. We had camped our way from Seattle to Yellowstone and from there had headed northeast towards Devil’s Tower. Or at least I think that’s what we had done.

The day we arrive it’s getting on toward sunset and it’s windy and a bit stormy. And although WE got our tent set up and firmly secured, it was moments before the wind and rain swept into the campsite. We watched from inside our car as one tent rolled over and over ending up in the river; objects flew past our car.

Fortunately, the squall soon passed and the rest of the night was without incident. The next day we hiked around the base of the tower and learned that, no, the top of the rock looked nothing like the massive spot where the aliens landed in Close Encounters.

Fast forward to 1998. We are now touring in style, towing an 18-ish foot travel trailer complete with kitchen, indoor plumbing, a dining table, and bunks for the kids. The kids are 8 and 5 and we head out to Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, and Devil’s Tower. It’s August 1998.

The afternoon we arrive at Devil’s Tower campground it’s hot but that’s to be expected. What’s not to be expected is a repeat of the 1989 trip… yet there we are.

The storm clouds roll in and there’s lightning. The wind picks up. Rumor has it that there are climbers up on Devil’s Tower who, because of the thunderstorm, cannot get down from it.

We had just finished dinner when we see the park ranger approach our campsite. Although I cannot remember his exact message, I will paraphrase:

“We are under a tornado warning (or perhaps it was only a watch?) and it’s recommended that you seek shelter. You can go to the bathrooms or, if not that, buckle yourselves into the seatbelts of your car.”


I remember looking over at the cinderblock bathrooms and being repulsed by the idea of staying inside the musty cement building for who knows how long.

So we all climbed into the Wrastromobile (1998 White Chevy Astro Van), buckled up and waited for the tornado. My five year old daughter and I were in the back seat. She never let go of my hand, traumatized by the thought that we were going to be pulling a Dorothy and end up soaring up in the funnel, still buckled into our seats. The tornado never arrived.

Obsessed with the imagery of Devil’s Tower, Roy Neary makes models of the mountain out of everything, including mashed potatoes

Eventually, the ranger came back by and said the warning was past. So we exited the van, had a campfire and watched the sunset over Devil’s Tower. The next day we learned that there had been a EF-0 tornado about 20 miles away in Moorcroft.

The next evening, while staying further west in Buffalo, Wyoming, we experienced a high wind event which, although it was not an official tornado, ripped the awning off of our trailer, took down a bunch of branches, removed all the recycled cans from the wire bins in the campground, and generally left the place a mess.

And although we never saw any extraterrestrials landing their ships atop Devil’s Tower, I’m convinced that whatever happens there is important and it means something. But I’m in no hurry to go back and tempt fate with a close encounter a third time.

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