Teacher Profile: Rayburn’s science fiction adventures

Forty years ago, a fresh-faced 24-year-old Steve Rayburn walked out of a theater in Murray, Kentucky utterly awestruck. Rayburn had just seen the Spielberg-directed film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is celebrating its anniversary this year.

“I was blown away. I just remember coming out of the theater saying, ‘Oh my god, that was so great,’” said Rayburn.

Three weeks ago, in celebration of the forty years since its release, local theaters held showings of the original movie and, naturally, Rayburn was in attendance. Leading up to the anniversary showing, Rayburn was worried that the movie wouldn’t hold up and that his memories of the movie were too romanticized. However, upon seeing the film in August, those worries vanished.

“I was pleased, I felt good, because it was still the movie I remembered it to be,” he said.

Several key scenes, Rayburn says, still amazed him when he watched the movie again. One scene, where the alien mothership descends, Rayburn had forgotten parts of and therefore was awestruck upon seeing it again.

Rayburn had been previously disappointed with re-releases of the film, like the director’s cut, which he says removed critical and compelling parts of the movie, like when Toby, the child protagonist enters the spaceship at the end of the movie and it takes off. In the director’s cut, we follow Toby onto the ship, which Rayburn says removes the mystery from that part of the movie.

What draws him to the movie, Rayburn says, is an innate fascination we all have with contacting other intelligent life.

One scene that has always stood out to Rayburn is when Roy, one of the main characters who is obsessively following the alien activity, seemingly goes insane and creates a tower of mashed potatoes. This scene was also cut down for the director’s cut.

He also cited contemporary cultural factors as reasons for his interest, saying, “It was [released] around the same time as the Voyager [launch], so there was a lot of talk about, ‘Oh we’re sending this thing out to deep space, it’s got Chuck Berry on it, it’s got pictures [. . .] what if there’s other life forms out there what will they take from this?”

Rayburn has even gone so far as to say that Close Encounters is better than Star Wars: A New Hope, the first film of the widely popular franchise which was released just months earlier. This claim has often gotten him into arguments with family and colleagues. Rayburn often argues that while Star Wars is also a great movie, Close Encounters is a superior work of science fiction.

“I liked Star Wars, I enjoyed it immensely, but I thought Close Encounters as a work of science fiction was much better than Star Wars. I was immediately saying this is better.”

Rayburn argues that while Star Wars is a fun and “frolicking” adventure, Close Encounters is really more science fiction, while Star Wars could be considered fantasy.

Close Encounters seemed more realistic, like something that could happen.”