In the character of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), director Steven Spielberg expresses the dilemma faced by an ordinary man who experiences a close encounter with a UFO and is given a mental summons to meet with the aliens at a future time. The film explores the range of emotions and inner stresses faced by a UFO contactee, including the confusion of his family, the reluctance of the authorities to recognize his experience as genuine, and the obsession of the contactee to respond to the "invitation" that the aliens have somehow impressed in his psyche.
Forced by an inner compulsion to seek reunion with the aliens atop Devil's Tower, Wyoming, Neary must leave his tearful and distressed wife (Teri Garr) and children behind as he continues his rendezvous with space intelligences. He is soon joined by an ally (Melinda Dillon), whose son was abducted from their farm home, who also is receiving telepathic messages about where he will be returned to her.
Spielberg claimed that he had adapted many actual stories of UFO contact for the screenplay, including accounts from the files of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer who had been employed by the U.S. Air Force in its official research of the UFO mystery, Project
The alien beings, when they are at last revealed on screen, appear to be childlike, benevolent entities, seemingly so innocent as to be incapable of interstellar travel. And when Neary is selected to return with them to their world, many moviegoers were touched vicariously and felt their spirit prepare to lift off with them.
Such a positive portrayal of alien life-forms as that depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind was in sharp contrast to the monsters and the invaders that had populated so many science fiction motion pictures, and the way was paved for the arrival of Spielberg's E.T.—The Extraterrestrial (1982).
In this film, an amphibian/reptilian entity so lived on the love vibration that audiences could not resist its charm. The evil alien appeared banished from the screen and television sets, and talk of government cover-ups was forgotten by all but a small number of diehard UFO investigators. Even those aliens who looked human, such as Robin Williams on the series Mork and Mindy (1978–82), were not at all threatening.
Sinister aliens didn't return to the general public consciousness until stories began circulating of humans claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrial crews for purposes of undergoing bizarre medical examinations. In 1986 Whitley Strieber (1945– ) told of