The phenomenal success of his thriller Jaws allowed Steven Spielberg to make an expensive movie near and dear to his heart. Close Encounters is not a fifties alien nation piece with cold and pitiless invaders, but an inspiring film about humankind’s contact with friendly aliens and a really, really big spacecraft.
As the film opens, strange phenomena occur across the globe. Fighter aircraft from World War I suddenly appear in a Mexican desert, untouched by age. A long-lost Russian tanker is found in the sands of the Gobi. The inhabitants of a village in northern India sing a haunting tune and point as one to the sky as its source.
People across the United States see strange lights in the sky and are “sunburnt” by a sort of cosmic invitation that etches an image in their minds, along with an obsessive urge to find it. The invitees include lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), single mom Gillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her adorable son Barry, whose huge eyes and upturned nose make him look like a little alien.
Government goons attempt to cover up the alien encounters, and concoct a devious plot to keep people away from any alien landing site. Meanwhile, French UFO scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) deciphers the haunting melody as an attempt to begin a conversation with our counterparts from the stars.
The landing site is of course Devils Tower in Wyoming, which poor Roy has been sculpting out of mashed potatoes, shaving cream and a half-ton of mud dumped into his living room, which doesn’t sit well with his wife and kids. He and the similarly obsessed Gillian (the aliens have abducted Barry) foil the government’s attempts to keep them away. They witness the breathtaking visit of the mothership and a joyous musical conversation as the scientists use a big lighted keyboard, like a giant toy xylophone, to talk back.
The Cast of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’
Dreyfuss is wonderful as the normal Midwest dad suddenly thrust into an obsession that makes him doubt his own sanity, and Teri Garr is sweet as the wife who tries to understand – at least at first. Dillon, who can play vulnerable, sensitive, strong and scared all at the same time, does a great job reacting to thin air when the special effects would be filled in later. The scenes of the early alien visits to her house are both terrifying and slyly funny.
Truffaut is great fun as the UFO hunter, with Bob Balaban as his dogged interpreter, who also figures out the coded alien message that leads to the landing site. There’s an enormous, globe-spanning cast, and some of the best moments in the film come from the unknown actors who populate the various UFO visitation sites.
This movie is all about special effects, and was way, way ahead of its time. The mothership is a glorious confection of globes and towers, its enormity conveyed in light, shadow and sound. The various smaller UFOs buzzing about, the shadows of great spaceships passing silently overhead, and the violent roiling of the clouds when the mothership appears are all spellbinding.
As good as the mega-effects are, the small moments connect, too. The doors flapping on the row of mailboxes when a UFO pulls up behind Roy’s truck. The floating chaos in the truck cab as all the objects within lose touch with gravity. Barry’s wind-up toys suddenly whirring to life, clashing and clanking. It’s eerie and wonderful all at once, and full of thrilling little popcorn scares.
In an interview accompanying the 30th anniversary edition, Spielberg says he was more likely in 1977 to believe in government suppression of the evidence for UFOs than he is today. The special edition presents all three versions of the film – the 1977 theatrical release, the 1980 special release with footage of Dreyfuss entering the mothership, and the 1998 special edition director’s cut, which takes those scenes back out again.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a lyrical, intensely felt film that provokes a sense of wonder, discovery and awe at our place in the universe. Visually stunning, expertly told and deeply human, it stands the test of time as a classic of science fiction and adventure.
Year: 1977, Color
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 135 minutes