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Why It's Essential: Close Encounters of the Third Kind ('77)

After a series of strange occurrences and sightings in remote places around the world--the discovery of a squadron of planes missing since the 1940s, a group of people in India claiming to have heard a five-note musical sequence emanating from above, a missing ship that suddenly appears in the middle of a desert--ordinary people start having strange visions and compulsions, some of them creating images of what appears to be a sheer-walled mountain. Upon investigating these phenomena, scientist Claude Lacombe and his team come to believe that the musical messages are defining earth coordinates that lead them to Devil's Tower, Wyoming. They set up there in preparation to meet some sort of alien presence. Roy Neary, an Indiana man who has seen UFOs and become obsessed with recreating the mountain-like shape, and Jillian Guiler, whose son was abducted by a spaceship, are also drawn to the Devil's Tower area, where government officials have spread the false rumor of a nerve gas spill to clear out local residents. Roy and Jillian, however, realizing the shape they've been seeing in their heads is the actual Devil's Tower, don't believe the cover-up and manage to sneak through to the top of the mountain, where Lacombe and a large team of investigators prepare to witness a spectacular sight, a close encounter of the third kind, the official term for contact with extraterrestrial beings.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Producers: Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg; Hal Barwood, Jerry Belson, John Hill, Matthew Robbins
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Editing: Michael Kahn
Production Design: Joe Alves
Art Direction: Dan Lomino Original Music: John Williams
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Francois Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin).
C-135m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.


From our perspective in 2012, there's nothing particularly notable or risky about a hot young filmmaker, just off a movie that set new box office records, taking on a big-budget sci-fi film. In fact, it seems the height of good show business sense, and any studio would jump at the opportunity to back it. Not so in the mid-1970s, when Steven Spielberg first pitched his idea for a story about a Watergate-like cover-up of contact with beings from another planet. Science fiction films had not been popular for many years; those that were produced generally fell in the grade B or lower tier of releases. Only Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had any impact, and as a mystical epic by a maverick filmmaker known for his artistic treatment of quirky subjects, it was considered an anomaly. But the financially ailing Columbia Pictures needed a hit and decided to gamble on a property then known as "Watch the Skies," a title taken from the final line of The Thing from Another World (1951), directly recalling the heyday of the great sci-fi films.

The risk paid off many times over, delivering Columbia's biggest box office returns to that date and garnering rave reviews. Spielberg was able to achieve this success by hitting all the right notes--a compelling human story that struck an emotional chord in viewers; spectacular special effects (all the more remarkable for being pre-CGI) that created an air of excitement, wonder, and mystery; and references to specific films and cinematic traditions beyond sci-fi that established it as more than just a well-done genre film. As good as the movie is on its own terms, however, it also benefited from great timing. Just a half year before Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit theaters, George Lucas released Star Wars (1977), and suddenly science fiction was back as a respectable genre and a surefire moneymaker. In the end, Spielberg was given the artistic freedom and financial backing to realize his full vision for a project he had dreamed about since his teens because the delays in developing the script afforded him the chance to direct Jaws (1975). That movie virtually created the new idea of "blockbuster," changing the way films would be marketed, released, and distributed from that point on and making him a highly bankable director.

The risks, however, did not become totally negligible after Jaws and Star Wars. Some advance reviews noted that Close Encounters was a far cry from the highly kinetic, tongue-in-cheek comic-book quality of Lucas's outer space adventure tale, and this gave studio executives and financial backers cause for alarm. Veering away from his original focus on a government UFO conspiracy, Spielberg created instead a moving tale of ordinary people encountering something extraordinary, an alien presence right at their doorstep, harkening back to the genre's glory days of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). The perception of the film as something of a throwback was confirmed when the prestigious critic for the New York Times, Vincent Canby, called it "the best--the most elaborate--1950's science fiction film ever made." Quite apart from being a disappointment, however, this is a major part of what made the movie such a success in its day and one that continues to resonate with viewers since.

Close Encounters is certainly not a perfect movie. If it were, it's quite likely Spielberg and Columbia would never have taken the unprecedented step of re-cutting and adding new scenes to put a "Special Edition" of the film back in theaters in 1980 and honing it even further for a "Collector's Edition" DVD release (common practices now but a path blazer in its day). There are gaps in the narrative, characters that seem to be no more than sketchy types, and some scenes of everyday family home life that are just plain irritating, not to mention the questionable "friendliness" of extraterrestrials who would snatch a small boy from his mother or take airmen from their lives and return them 30 years later, not having aged in step with those dearest to them, who had long presumed them dead. Yet little of this really detracts from the overall joy of the movie, because what Spielberg created is not so much a film about aliens from space as a fable about hope, revelation, imagination, and the impulse to create (note how music, drawing and sculpture become central preoccupations of those who encounter the UFOs).

Spielberg imbues the most mundane realities with an expectation of the fantastic and grounds even the wildest parts of his fantasy in a reality that makes it all seem possible at any moment. The benign, cuddly aliens who come to Earth in peace and good will and, amazingly, are received in the same spirit represent a marked departure from both the Cold War fear of outsiders that characterized most of the sci-fi films of the 1950s and the cynical disillusionment of the more recent Watergate years. With its optimistic, almost spiritual approach, Close Encounters plays on our primal desire for community, social harmony, and contact with something greater than ourselves, and its appeal to cinematic memories and the creative impulse within everyone makes for an experience that is, in the words of author Frank McConnell, "about the myths of film culture itself and their power to energize and ennoble our lives beyond the point of irony and dissatisfaction."

by Rob Nixon

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