Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey
Sandwiched in between two of the greatest works of his career, Jaws and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while recognized as a significant and important film, doesn’t enjoy nearly as much popularity and exposure in pop culture as those other two films. This is quite the shame, as Close Encounters represents some of the finest work Spielberg has ever accomplished.
Cableman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountain-like image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy, the agents, and a desperate mother named Jillian (Melinda Dillon) follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.
Coming hot off the mega success of Jaws, Spielberg turned his attention for his fourth effort to the stars, revisiting an old idea of his centered around the UFO phenomenon. After many un-credited rewrites from such writers as Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson, Spielberg’s pet project transformed from Watch the Skies, the story of a government agent’s attempts to contact aliens, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, featuring the more decidedly blue-collar, everyman characters of Richard Deyfuss’s Roy Neary and Melinda Dillon’s Jillian Guiler. A most fortunate decision, as this shift into the ordinary Americana gives Close Encounters a wonderfully nostalgic flavor to complement its out-of-this-world premise.
Structured into three distinct acts, Close Encounters begins by introducing the three sets of main characters in the midst of some truly remarkable and unexplainable happenings. French director Francois Truffaut, in a rare acting role, plays an official named Lacombe, working with clandestine government agents who are beginning to discover signs that an extrasolar intelligence may be ready to make contact. At the same time, in the suburbs of Muncie, Indiana, Jillian Guiler’s young son Barry takes off into the night after unseen playmates from the sky, and Roy Neary experiences the fright of his life while on the roads during a power outage. Both of their extraordinary sightings change their lives completely, especially in the case of Roy, whose journey to learn the source of a persistent vision of a nameless mountain becomes the crux of the second act.
The first act is a masterclass of setup writing. Lacombe’s team are introduced in a mysterious Mexican set piece that adds to an already palpable sense of mystery and intrigue before an impressive transition takes the audience to an air traffic control room, where operators are held on the edge of their seats listening to a UFO encounter reported by two different commercial airliners. Much of the first half of the film is skillfully packed with the cultural zeitgeist of the UFO phenomenon and its corresponding conspiracy theories, making Close Encounters perhaps a sort of precursor to Chris Carter’s infamous television series The X-Files.
Where Spielberg’s touch comes in is with the second act, displaying Roy’s descent into near madness by both the unshaking vision and his obsession with finding some shred of proof that he wasn’t just seeing things that night. Some of Spielberg’s most well-known narrative trademarks begin here, most notably the absent father, personified in Roy’s forsaking of family life in pursuit of the truth. These scenes, often juxtaposed with flashes of brilliant humor by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr as his bewildered wife Ronnie, begin to set the film apart from its ufological brethren, which seem more concerned with blood-sucking monsters or evil humanoids bent on universal domination. Close Encounters is a film with two ambitions: to present as scientific and realistic a depiction of the UFO phenomenon as possible, and to provide a family drama that seems to exorcise some of Spielberg’s own personal demons.
The third act, seeing Roy and Jillian close in on a secret government operation by Lacombe’s team at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, is where the sci-fi roots of the picture take center stage. For a good 40 minutes of the final runtime, Roy and Jillian are witness to Lacombe’s attempt to make contact with the aliens with the use of musical motifs that they have been using during their repeated visits to Earth. In this sequence, typical science fiction archetypes of natural technological progression and utopian ideals are married with Judeo-Christian symbolism to present Roy with the ultimate door to the Heavens. It’s an increasingly wonderful vision of cinema that just builds and compounds as the viewing unfolds.
Just as important as the narrative are the technical lords of the film, best personified in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and composer John Williams. Zsigmond’s photography is vast array of landscapes, ranging from far-flung deserts with unexplainable sights to everyday suburban life, and not once does his camera falter and present an insincere image. On-set lighting effects, especially during the third act, blend convincingly with Trumbull’s work, which employs the same kind of lens flare-inducing spotlighting that would later make his work on Blade Runner so memorable. Undoubtedly, however, Williams would prove to be the MVP of the three, with a score that successfully combines eerie, alien drones and swells with his signature, classical orchestra sound. His score on Close Encounters is a marvel, and easily ties with the original Star Wars score for his best work.
Despite the sheer excellence of the film, Spielberg felt that it was compromised by a reduced schedule, and in 1980 successfully lobbied Columbia Studios to allow him to finish shooting several sequences to complete the picture. Released as the Special Edition, it incorporates seven minutes of new footage while deleting or reordering several sequences from the original theatrical version. The reordering works very well, spreading the disparate journeys of Roy and Lacombe evenly across the second act whilst trimming some unneeded fat. However, one sequence in particular, Roy’s destruction of his house by the introduction of all sorts of trash to build his Devil’s Tower replica, has been foolishly removed by a squeamish Spielberg. Even worse, Columbia required him to shoot a new ending depicting the interior of the mothership as Roy enters it, killing the mystery while stopping the perfect emotional climax cold. Luckily, Spielberg was as bothered by these choices as I was, and in 1998, released a third cut known as the Director’s Cut, incorporating most of the better Special Edition cuts and ordering while thankfully reinserting Roy’s trash collection and omitting the mothership interior. All versions are readily available on DVD and blu-ray in collector’s sets.
One of the earliest films I remember watching over and over again as a child was Close Encounters. The little astronaut in me couldn’t get enough to the alien ships buzzing overhead, and its Indiana suburban setting was almost identical to my Ohio home, which certainly helps me get all nostalgic watching it now. Along with Star Wars and later Blade Runner, I consider it to be one of my “cinematic parents,” forming in me a deep fascination and curiosity with the universe above my head. How appropriate it is that Close Encounters, as Spielberg has so often articulated, seems to be told from a youthful viewpoint, a sentiment best exemplified by Barry opening the door to welcome the alien travelers into his house. While his mother reacts with fear, Barry is unafraid, trusting the light as only a child can. Much can be said of the frankly unwise and hurtful effect Roy’s decisions had upon his family, but in the end, one has to put aside these adult notions and approach Close Encounters as young Barry would. This film is all about the childhood wonder of the world around us, and as Roy walks into the light, joining his metaphorical Gods as an orphan would his long-lost parents, I still shed tears of joy on my living room couch. It is a wonderful vision, and one I am unafraid to hang on to, forever.