How Do “War of the Worlds” & “Close Encounters” Show Campbell’s Idea of the Hero’s “Road of Trials”?

The epic stories of survival told in War of the Worlds (2005) and the psychological alien thriller Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) test the protagonists using storytelling elements described by Joseph Campbell in his iconic story-structure book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. In his book, Campbell proposes that all myths are essentially hero-quest stories, each of which follows a classic sequence of actions in a universal pattern. Campbell referred to this universal pattern as The Monomyth, which he coined from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The hero’s journey, according to Campbell, consists of three main moves: departure, initiation and return. Within each of these main categories resides a number of stages commonly found in the plots of all hero-quest stories.

The act of “swallowing the hero” or taking them to “the belly of the whale” is the first step to setting up a character’s troubles. The character becomes absorbed in the unknown and, instead of conquering defeat, winds up “dead.” According to Campbell, “[T]his popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation… instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.” The moment represents a fundamental change in the character’s way of doing things.

In Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version of War of the Worlds, the main character, Ray (Tom Cruise), is introduced as a struggling, inept father with little ambition or regard for others. When the aliens come out of the ground, Ray runs back to his house and sits on the floor, frozen and mute, as if dead. After the moment passes, he begins to move again, reborn as a guardian father who hustles his children out of their house to safety. In Campbell’s rubric, the protagonist has experienced his own death and rebirth: the death of his former more cowardly self, which is replaced by the emergence of a new form of conduct.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, also directed by Spielberg, the main character, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss), is similarly introduced as a lower-middle class father, somewhat inept at the task of parenthood, who works for a power company. He is immersed in the “belly of the whale” after having his first close encounter with the aliens. Examining a power outage, he first meets the aliens while driving his work truck, later intersecting with them as they fly overhead when Ray is outside his car. From that moment on, he is plagued with visions and dreams of a dark mountain and becomes obsessed with finding its meaning.

In both films, these movements into the “belly of the whale” start the characters on what Campbell refers to as the “road of trials.” In this section of a tale, the hero “moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.” These trials test a hero and eventually provide the information necessary for defeating the obstacles of restraint. That which defines a “hero” is the ability not to give up in the face of constant defeats on the road of trials.

The bulk of War of the Worlds consists of a barrage of such trials. From the moment the aliens emerge to the final minutes of the picture, Ray is focused on protecting his children and himself. It is a story of survival, and each action that Ray takes reflects his will to save his children’s lives and his own. Ray’s nurturing protection of the children and his respect for mortality makes him a relatable and sympathetic hero. For most of the film, Ray combats a dangerous landscape of giant aliens, dead bodies, and blood-pumping vines covering everything in sight. Nevertheless, our hero trudges on and ultimately survives.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy deals with similar trials, but the battlefield exists within his own mind. Campbell says that when “anyone – in whatever society – undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lands of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures.”

In Close Encounters, the hero faces trials after rerouting his life in the pursuit of the meaning of both his physical and mental visions. He sees aliens, yet the government claims they do not exist. He dreams of a dark mountainous figure, as do others, yet nobody knows what it means. The hero ignores all government claims and his family (who eventually leave him), refusing to stop searching for the truth despite intense opposition. He puts aside everything, including his own wife and children, to concentrate on the truth about the aliens and the mountain. This symbolic figure of the mountain represents the unintentional descent that drives the hero through his road of trials.

Meanwhile, on the road of trials, the hero gains insight into the enemy. As Campbell states, “[W]e may see reflected not only the whole picture of our present case, but also the clue to what we must do to be saved.” These clues are what will eventually lead to the end of the hero’s trials.

Although the War of the Worlds’ aliens are eventually defeated by Earth’s natural bacteria, a factor out of the scope of man’s control, there are moments when the hero identifies weaknesses in the enemy. After being placed in the tripod’s cage, Ray realizes he may be able to take out the machine by sending a grenade into its body. Also, when the tripods are weakening from the bacteria, Ray spots flying birds, which gives him a clue that the energy shields have disappeared; thus he tells the soldiers to begin firing at the invaders. Both of these military observations are somewhat out of the norm for an average man, but Ray figures them out from lessons learned during the road of trials. Another example of Ray’s gained insight is the moment he uses a mirror to reflect the image of an alien spy tentacle back at itself - an action that saves his life as well as the lives of others.

For Roy in Close Encounters, his insight comes through society. Dealing with other people who share his visions and beliefs, watching television news and tirelessly seeking the truth eventually gives him the insight he needs to find the mountain. He has to see past the cover-ups of the government and trust his own mind.

Both stories, having been directed by the same man, share similar storytelling and compositional qualities. While one is a story of survival and one is a story of truth, the characters’ developments are analogous. Both films initially center on family. Ray in War of the Worlds is trying to protect his family, while Roy in Close Encounters is trying to share the wonders of the aliens with his. Both families are dysfunctional, and both families break up during the course of the story in one way or another. Both fathers are somewhat unfit parents in the beginning, although Roy essentially stays that way once he begins to ignore his family while Ray changes into a die-hard protector. Both stories also are shown through the use of stunning visual effects that were considered cutting edge at the time of their respective release dates. Spielberg’s direction renders War of the Worlds powerfully terrifying and suspenseful; it makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind pull the viewer into the same psychologically demented need for truth as its hero.

While the depictions of the aliens and enemies in the two films might be different—War of the Worlds shows the aliens as evil, making humans vulnerable and sympathetic, while Close Encounters shows aliens as relatively harmless, focusing on Roy’s mind-games—Ray and Roy both embody the characteristics of Campbell’s hero. Both enter through the “belly of the whale” and travel a “road of trials,” as they voyage according to the universal pattern of Campbell’s hero’s quest.