“We are not alone!” screamed the ads when Close Encounters of the Third Kind was first released to theaters in 1977. After about 95 minutes of ponderous suburban angst, the viewer indeed discovered they had a friend or two in the skies.
I was just a stupid kid when I first saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I really didn’t have the slightest clue what in the hell was going on. But oh how I loved the finale, a special effects-choked extravaganza which became one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. The seemingly endless buildup had some kind of payoff, and director Steven Spielberg’s career was set for life (well, he did follow this film with the 1941 disaster). Close Encounters gets stronger with each viewing, though Spielberg has famously tinkered multiple times with the product.
I’ve seen the Special Edition, where we actually go inside the spacecraft; I’ve seen the Collector’s Edition where we no longer go inside the spacecraft but the story has been re-edited; I’ve seen the Making of documentary where we discover the deadlines Spielberg was forced to work under and the different ideas for the spaceships and aliens. It’s all a part of the myth of Close Encounters.
The spring of 1978 for me was the season of Star Wars and Close Encounters. It was my first year of junior high school. My friends and I would still ride bikes through the neighborhood. Our parents would drop us off at the cramped mall theaters. The great ongoing debate was whether Star Wars or Close Encounters was the better film. Many said “Star Wars.” But for me, the most awestruck revelation in film history was Close Encounters.
I still love Spielberg’s epic UFO creation and watched it again just the other night. It’s a sort of quasi-religious experience for a kid raised on War of the Worlds and Invaders From Mars. In Close Encounters, the aliens were friendly and most shocking of all – we were nice to them! This had not been done before as the alien standard was usually a growling James Arness dressed as a murderous carrot. With Close Encounters, Cold War paranoia was rinsed away.
A bit older and worse for wear, these days I still get a child-like thrill whenever I watch Close Encounters. The opening two thirds of the film are no longer ponderous, but identifiable. The awkward situations of a struggling middle-class family are realistically portrayed. Paul Schrader, noted screenplay author of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, wrote the original draft to this film. One suspects the obsessions and frustrations of Richard Dreyfuss’ character came from his tortured pen.
I am amazed how similar the television series The X-Files is to this film. We are all aware how The Night Stalker inspired Chris Carter to create his classic supernatural series. But is there a single plot turn in The X-Files not previously done in Close Encounters? Spaceships, aliens, cover-ups, conspiracies, investigations – it all started with Spielberg’s 1977 classic.
Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, working-class father and husband who witnesses what he believes to be a UFO. He finds himself tortured by visions and shapes seemingly stuck in his head, and he becomes obsessed with UFOs. Neary falls apart, losing his job, friends and eventually his family in several harrowing scenes. He befriends Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother who has witnessed these UFOs and is obsessed with similar visions. Her son is abducted by the aliens in a terrifying scene. They eventually realize these visions are mysteriously pointing them towards Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. They frantically travel there even though the U.S. military claims a train wreck has caused deadly gas to cover the countryside. Scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and his eccentric team have devised a musical language enabling them to communicate with the UFOs. The meeting place is, of course, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Neary and Guiler fight their way to the mountain, stumbling upon a government-constructed landing strip where Lacombe and his scientists hope to meet the aliens. An enormous mothership appears and humans make contact with aliens for the first time in history.
This is not a simple story, and the drama which plays out between Neary and his wife (Teri Garr) is brilliant. Guiler’s angst for her missing son is also perfectly portrayed by Dillon, one of the finest character actresses of this era. But the core of Close Encounters, the moment of truth, is the sequence involving the aliens. There are so many hundreds and thousands of ways this scene could have gone wrong. The aliens could have looked fake, but they didn’t. The lighting could have been wrong, but it wasn’t. The aliens are portrayed as being just as shy as we are – a perfect choice. There’s a sense of wonder throughout the extraordinary proceedings. Eventually, one gets the feeling that if we truly meet brothers from another planet, it will happen much as it does in Close Encounters.
At this point in his career, Spielberg was an enigma to the Hollywood brass – a young hotshot. His previous film Jaws had been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award but not Best Director. Ironically, Close Encounters was nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture. My neighborhood friends claimed this was perfect proof why Star Wars was the better film (it had been nominated for Best Picture). Anyway, Annie Hall swept the awards that year and I remember asking, “Who the hell is Woody Allen?!”
Special effects technology has come a long way since the days of Close Encounters, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Spielberg wanted detailed effects for his spaceships and aliens, and the film’s budget did skyrocket to $21 million (it made $80 million at the box office). Technology was not entirely where it needed to be for Spielberg’s unique vision, thus many of the ships and aliens are blurred by bright lights. This works perfectly in Close Encounters, allowing the viewer to fill in the gaps. We can’t see everything, but it seems fantastic because of our imagination.
If Walt Disney had decided to make a film for adults, it would have looked something like Close Encounters. Maybe Spielberg is the Walt Disney of the Easy Rider generation. And perhaps that is what Close Encounters eventually represents – a Baby Boomers’ Peter Pan.