How does Close Encounters of the Third Kind follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey breakdown?
Welcome to another installment of our new series A Hero’s Journey Breakdown where we explore Joseph Campbell’s mythological storytelling structure and how iconic films fit into that mold.
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. For this series, we define the stages with simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any number of other issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item, or a piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
Here we turn to the genre classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Note: As with any application of story structure or formula, this is just a hindsight interpretation and implementation of The Hero’s Journey to this cinematic tale. There can and will be variances. You can check out the script for Close Encounters for free at TSL’s Screenplay Library HERE.
The Ordinary World
Roy’s story opens up with family life in middle-class suburbia. He’s a wise-cracking husband and father of three, with a clear attachment to his inner-child as he tries to get the kids to choose between seeing Peter Pan or going “Goofy” golfing. They choose the latter.
Call to Adventure
When a widespread power outage occurs across the state of Indiana, Roy, an electrician, is called on-duty by his boss. This is Roy’s literal call to adventure as he drives across Indiana in the dark of night.
As he stops at a railroad crossing to find his whereabouts on a map, he experiences a close encounter with a UFO as it flies over his truck, creating a power surge in and around his car, as well as a strange and brief moment of weightlessness. When he tries to look up into the dark sky to see the source of this disturbance, his face is lightly burned due to the extreme light emanating from the UFO.
When he gathers his thoughts after the craft has passed over him, the power within his car comes on and he can hear the chatter of authorities chasing after the craft on his radio. Roy immediately puts the pedal to the metal and races towards the ongoing chase. As he pursues the craft, Ray almost hits Barry, a little boy that has run off from his house in the middle of the night, with single-mother Jillian rushing after him.
They then encounter smaller UFOs hovering close to the surface of the road. Roy jumps back in his truck and follows police cars that are pursuing the strange crafts which eventually escape into the night sky.
Roy returns to the sighting of the multiple UFOs with his family in the middle of the night. He tries to explain what he’s witnessed. His wife is dismissive. As they romantically kiss, Ray’s eyes are on the stars up above.
When he wakes up the next morning, with half of his face lightly burnt from the encounter, Roy begins to see visions of a strange shape that he can’t get out of his head. Before he can pursue the thought further, his wife informs him that Roy has been fired from his job because he didn’t show up as directed during the power outage.
Roy’s obsession with the UFOs, as well as his continued visions of the strange shape, take a toll on the family, forcing his wife to escape to her sister’s house with their kids.
Refusal of the Call
After crafting a massive sculpture of a towering mountain in their living room — made of mud and plants from his yard — Roy angrily realizes that the obsession is destroying his life.
He tries to take down the sculpture, only to pull the top half of the mountain off, revealing a shape he recognizes. It’s soon revealed that he’s sculpted a version of Devils Tower, a Wyoming national monument in the area of some odd happenings being reported on the news.
Meeting the Mentor
Roy’s mentor isn’t as defined as most hero journeys. Lacombe, a French scientist leading the investigation of global UFO sightings, doesn’t appear in Roy’s journey until much later in the story.
But it’s Roy’s embedded visions that can be interpreted as his true mentor. The alien beings that he came across have implanted some psychic connection within his mind — as well as the mind of others that have encountered the UFOs. This connection creates some sort of pull to the Devils Tower location.
Crossing the Threshold
Roy decides to take a road trip across the country to Wyoming to visit the location of Devils Tower.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
On his drive, Roy stops when he sees evacuated traffic going in the opposite direction.
Roy decides to continue on. He comes across Jillian, whose son Barry was taken by one of the UFOs. They join forces and trek through the Wyoming landscape, avoiding closed roads and braving the warning sights of “dead” livestock.
The Army has evacuated the entire area around Devils Tower by planting false reports in the media that a train wreck has spilled a toxic nerve gas.
Roy and Jillian find their way off-road to the site of Devils Tower — they stare at the physical proof of their shared vision.
When they attempt to get closer, they are apprehended by the Army and separated. Roy finally meets Lacombe and demands answers to the questions he, and so many others like him, have had. Lacombe and his interpreter divulge details of what has been happening to them.
Roy learns that many others have traveled across the country, seeking the same answers.
Just when it seems that Roy is going to learn what has been happening, he and the rest of the apprehended individuals — including Jillian — are put on a helicopter to be transported away from the area.
They are forced to wear gas masks to prevent them from being exposed to the supposed toxic nerve gas that the Army is using as a cover-up to evacuate the area.
Roy pleads with the others around him in the helicopter, saying that the nerve gas is a cover story. He takes a significant leap of faith and removes his mask, to the dismay of others. He breathes for a few moments and realizes that his suspicions are true.
The Road Back
Jillian and another person follow Roy’s lead. They escape the helicopter and rush into the wilderness towards Devils Tower. They’re not headed back to Indiana and their Ordinary World. Instead, they are back on the road to their calling.
However, Army soldiers and helicopters comb the area at the base of Devils Tower in search of any stragglers. They even drop nerve gas as a last result, which knocks out Roy and Jillian’s new friend before he can get to the other side of Devils Tower.
Roy and Jillian struggle to escape the gas.
When they do reach the other side of Devils Tower safely, they’re amazed to find a secret landing zone.
Roy and Jillian watch as dozens of UFOs appear in the night sky above. The answers they’ve been searching for are finally here. The Reward gave them the opportunity of answering the call to this special place.
Roy has finally found the UFOs he has been searching for, and it’s a thrill to see. Scientists and researchers try to communicate with the UFOs by the use of light and sound from a large electrical billboard that is controlled by a synthesizer, paving the way for an enormous mother-ship that lands at the site.
When a form of communication has been revealed, the mother-ship opens, releasing missing pilots from the infamous WWII-era Flight 19, as well as people from different past eras — all of whom have not aged a day since their abductions.
Jillian reunites with a returned Barry.
Roy has decided to fully commit to his journey towards the answers that he has been seeking. He is found by Lacombe within the crowd of onlookers at the site. He is invited to be part of the group of people that they have selected as potential travelers to join the mother-ship.
They prepare him quickly. The aliens then select Roy to join them on their intergalactic travels, likely based on his passion and journey. He has gone above and beyond to prove that he wants to know more about the UFOs and their inhabitants.
Roy doesn’t have the traditional return to his Ordinary World. He is off on a new journey to the stars with his newfound friends. The Return in this story has been transferred to Jillian. After she’s reunited with Barry, the two of them watch Roy and the mother-ship lift off into space.
Michael Lee has worked in development as a script reader and story analyst for a major studio, Emmy Award-winning production company, and iconic movie director.
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