skip navigation
Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind(1977)


FOR Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) YOU CAN


TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here

Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (1)

DVDs from TCM Shop

Close Encounters of the Third Kind A blue-collar worker's... MORE > $11.21 Regularly $14.99 Buy Now blu-ray


powered by AFI

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)


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 LominoOriginal 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

back to top
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

When Close Encounters of the Third Kind was first released, Steven Spielberg asked Ray Bradbury, the legendary author of such works The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, "How do you like your film? Close Encounters wouldn't have been born if I hadn't seen It Came from Outer Space six times when I was a kid." Bradbury had written the original treatment for that 1953 film. Indeed, Close Encounters and other Spielberg works would seem to owe a lot to Bradbury, not only to his sci-fi novels but to such stories of almost magical everyday life as Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

According to a 1994 Entertainment Weekly feature, "A Viewer's Guide to Sci-Fi's Greatest Hits," author Ray Bradbury declared this the greatest science fiction film ever made. In the Los Angeles Times in November of 1977, the renowned science fiction author called Close Encounters, "The most important film of our time. ... For this is a religious film, in all the great good senses, the right senses, of that much-battered word ... because for the first time someone has treated all of us as if we really did belong to one race."

According to film historian and critic Joseph McBride, Jean Renoir compared Spielberg's storytelling in this picture to Jules Verne and Georges Melis.

As to be expected with a director so immersed in movies of all kinds, many viewers have noted what they believe to be several references to other movies, some direct and obviously intentional, others more oblique:
- the use of the song "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio (1940), the Disney movie Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) unsuccessfully tries to talk his kids into seeing instead of going to play Goofy Golf
- the Neary kids watching The Ten Commandments (1956) on television
- a resemblance between the shot of the people in India pointing en masse to the sky and the shot of throngs reaching up to the Tower of Babel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)
- Dreyfuss sliding down the slope of Devil's Tower as Melinda Dillon reaches out to help him, with their fingers touching, similar to shots from the Mount Rushmore sequence in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), an allusion bolstered by a line a short time later in the mother ship landing sequence, when the Project Leader talks about "uncorrelated targets approaching from the north-northwest"
- an homage to Spielberg's friend George Lucas's Star Wars (1977), with a barely discernible glimpse of the R2D2 character from the Lucas film "hitchhiking" on the underside of the mother ship

The connection to Pinocchio was reinforced by Spielberg's statement that when Roy realizes his dream by entering the mother ship at the end, he is symbolically reborn. He "becomes a real person. He loses his strings, his wooden joints." The rebirth is also similar to that of the astronaut at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride has noted several other works that likely influenced Spielberg in creating this story:
- the theme of aliens helping humans to a higher spiritual state from the novel Childhood's End and the story "The Sentinel" (the source of the Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey by one of Spielberg's favorite sci-fi writers Arthur C. Clarke), not to mention a similar theme in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- the kidnapping of the child Barry by the aliens, credited by Spielberg to writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, but reflective of the same theme and some of the visual elements in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), a film Spielberg watched twice while on location with Close Encounters
- the idea of ordinary people beginning to act strangely after apparent contact with aliens as in the Bradbury-penned film It Came from Outer Space, which also posited the idea of aliens being benign

Some critics have dug for biblical analogies. If they do, in fact, exist, they may be evidence of Paul Schrader's hand in the script development, since he claimed his draft had much more of a biblical character (modeled after St. Paul) and planted the idea of a spiritual quest in the desire to contact aliens. In this respect, Devil's Tower has been compared to Mount Sinai with the aliens as God and Roy Neary as Moses. Others have likened Roy's entrance into the spaceship to Elijah being borne away in a chariot of fire and his urging to Jillian not to look back as they climb the mountain to Lot's command to his wife as they leave Sodom.

The story "Dulcie and Decorum" by Damon Knight has been cited as an influence on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and several others. The aspects relevant to Close Encounters are the central premise of an obsession the main character has with an idea implanted in his head by an alien intelligence, the character's construction of a structure in his garage resembling a maze, and the marital discord and gradual loss of contact with his wife resulting from these obsessions.

Close Encounters has also been directly referenced in other works. In the James Bond adventure Moonraker (1979), the five note sequence is heard when a scientist enters a combination into an electronic door lock. In an episode of the animated TV comedy series South Park entitled "Imaginationland," a scientist similarly uses the five notes to try to open a portal.

Although the title actually comes from a term coined by astronomer and ufologist J. Allen Hynek, its frequent, often satirical use is more likely traceable back to the movie's popularization of the notion of close encounters. Among the examples: a review of the animated film Arthur Christmas (2011) on The Bloodshot Eye film blog entitled "Close Encounters of the Santa Kind" and, more to the point, a review of the Spielberg film War Horse (2011) by Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger entitled "Close Encounters of the Herd Kind." The title has also been parodied as "Close Encounters of the Worst Kind" (the Alice TV series), "Luncheon Counters of the Third Kind" (Saturday Night Live), "Cone Encounters of the Third Kind" (another SNL with guest host Richard Dreyfuss), and "Close Encounters of the Frog Kind" (Muppet Babies). The list goes on and on, including a number of twists on the title in the old-movie spoof series Mystery Science Theater 3000, which also made frequent sport of the five-tone musical motif and the notion of sculpting mountains out of mashed potatoes, both of which have been repeatedly spoofed in movies and on television.

One of the strangest, but probably most inevitable, pop culture offshoots to come directly from Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the rumor that, because of the secrecy under which the film was shot, it was being financed by the government as part of the training needed to prepare humans for an actual alien landing. In fact, NASA and the Air Force refused to cooperate with the production, fearing it would spread panic about UFOs just as Spielberg's Jaws had caused an inordinate amount of public anxiety about "killer" sharks. Spielberg said his faith in the possibility of UFOs was boosted when he received a 20-page letter from NASA stating their opposition to the film: "I knew there must be something happening." The rumor about the government's sponsorship of the film persisted and grew when Spielberg released E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). In fact, a story circulated that when the director screened the film at the White House, President Ronald Reagan confided to him, "You know, there are fewer than six people in this room who know the real story."

Underground filmmaker and movie historian Kenneth Anger, author of the book Hollywood Babylon, claimed that Close Encounters ripped off elements of his movies Scorpio Rising (1964) and Lucifer Rising (1972), and he went to see it six times to determine that. He even wrote, in a short review of the film, that in the burst of static in the air traffic control tower he could hear his name as "kenanger," as if being taunted by Spielberg.

It would be a pointless discussion to determine how much Spielberg's physical depiction of the aliens was influenced by earlier images and how much it influenced, or at least perpetuated the popular image of extra-terrestrials. They closely resemble the reborn embryonic character at the end of 2001 and the photos of alleged alien corpses said to have been found in a crashed spaceship near Roswell, New Mexico. They also bear close resemblance, of course, to the eponymous creature of Spielberg's later E.T..

During production, Francois Truffaut, whose film Small Change (1976) is one of the best cinematic depictions of childhood, suggested to Spielberg that he should make a film about kids "because you are a kid yourself." This suggestion quite likely blossomed into E.T. a few years later.

Of all the many influences Close Encounters has had on popular culture, perhaps the most important is Spielberg's bold and unprecedented decision to re-cut and re-shoot parts of his film and re-release it only three years later as the Special Edition. Other directors (such as Hitchcock) remade older works, many directed sequels, and others have spoken about what they would do differently if they had the chance. In the old studio area, a film might be pulled from release, recut and reissued by the studio, but no director up to this time had re-vamped a hit movie for re-release after its original run. Now in the age of films on DVD, it's quite common to see new or alternate versions of a film, often called "director's cuts," such as the multiple versions of Blade Runner (1982) available for viewing.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Because Spielberg edited at a secret place under guard and not at the studio, executives at Columbia had no idea what to expect from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but they were elated after a first screening of the rough cut. Alan Hirschfield, chair of the Columbia board, was particularly moved by the use of the song "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Disney's Pinocchio (1940) in the finale. Of Spielberg's three possible musical endings--the original song as performed in the Disney movie by Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket), an orchestral version, or a coda written by Close Encounter's composer John Williams--Hirschfield insisted he use Edward's original for the preview. When some of the 1,400 audience members snickered, Spielberg replaced it with Williams's piece. In the 1980 Special Edition release, he put the instrumental version over the end credits.

After some criticism about the film's length, Spielberg cut seven minutes after the previews, delaying the release for a few weeks (much to Columbia's chagrin) and leaving the length still over two hours, an annoyance to exhibitors who sought to schedule as many screenings per day as possible. When at last it was previewed for journalists, Hirschfield told friends he was disappointed, declaring it "no Jaws [1975] or Star Wars [1977]." Financial writer William Flanagan of New York magazine opined in print that the picture would be "a colossal flop. It lacks the dazzle, charm, wit, imagination and broad audience appeal of Star Wars--the film Wall Street insists it measure up to." Such poor advance notices, on top of a major embezzlement scandal involving Columbia head David Begelman, made investors nervous, and the financially shaky company's stocks began to drop precipitously.

Columbia, and the film, were at least in part saved from disaster by a rave review from Time magazine's Frank Rich, who wrote, "His new movie is richer and more ambitious than Jaws, and it reaches the viewer at a far more profound level than Star Wars." A gala benefit preview also brought excellent word-of-mouth, and when the picture opened in New York, people were lined up around the block to see it.

Very quickly after its November 1977 release, Close Encounters became a huge box office success, owing not only to the film's quality and appeal but to the advance buzz about it, Spielberg's reputation from Jaws, and the newfound receptivity to sci-fi movies brought about by the blockbuster success of Star Wars. But much of its box office power came from a pervasive advertising campaign, particularly intense in the first month of the film's release. According to Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind cost $18 million to shoot, edit, score, and print. (Some sources put the final cost at $19-23 million, more than any Columbia production up to that time.) The ad budget for the first month of release came to an additional $9 million. By some estimates, the film grossed $117 million in North America and $172 million in overseas markets, making it the most successful film up to that time for the financially beleaguered Columbia Pictures.

When asked in 1990 to select a single "master image" that summed up his film career, Spielberg chose the shot of Barry opening his living room door to see the blazing orange light from the UFO. "That was beautiful but awful light, just like fire coming through the doorway. [Barry's] very small, and it's a very large door, and there's a lot of promise or danger outside that door."

In his production diary, Bob Balaban, who played cartographer/interpreter David Laughlin, wrote that on the night of July 22, 1976, on the Alabama location shoot, some people thought they saw a UFO over the hangar. By the time everyone ran outside to look, the lights were gone. Spielberg later recalled that, at the time, he believed he had seen his first UFO and became depressed when he found out it was only an Echo satellite.

"I didn't like my work. And it took a long time to recontact that feeling in me of why I made the film. ... I didn't do it because it was a Spielberg movie, because they didn't exist as such yet, or because it was a great role. I did it because I knew they would show that film in the Museum of Modern Art in the year 2030, that...this movie would be potentially the most important film ever made, and I wanted desperately to be a part of that experience." - Richard Dreyfuss, describing his depression after seeing the movie for the first time

"I believe that the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind comes from Steven's very special gift for giving plausibility to the extraordinary. If you analyze [it], you will find that Spielberg has taken care in shooting all the scenes of everyday life to give them a slightly fantastic aspect, while also, as a form of balance, giving the most everyday possible quality to the scenes of fantasy." - Francois Truffaut

Spielberg later regretted his depiction of Ronnie Neary, as played by Teri Garr. He felt she came off too shrill and too much the "bad guy" in the story.

In a 2005 interview, Spielberg stated that he made Close Encounters before he had children, and if he were making it today, he would never have Neary leave his family and go on the mother ship.

The film's ability to have us believe totally in the world it creates carries the audience through such illogical bits as accepting that any unequipped individuals, such as Roy and Jillian, could possibly scale Wyoming's Devil's Tower, a sheer-walled monolith that rises almost totally straight up nearly 1,300 feet above the surrounding terrain.

Because most of Cary Guffey's shots were done in one take, Spielberg had a t-shirt made for him that said "One-Take Cary."

Bob Balaban also tells of a t-shirt being made with a fractured version of Truffaut's line, "They belong here more than we." Because of Truffaut's thick French accent, the line sounded like "Zey belong here Mozambique."

Upon visiting the editing room, Francois Truffaut was stunned at the amount of footage they had to work with.

On the bubble gum card tie-in product with the shot of little Barry being snatched by the spaceship through the dog door in his house, you can see his mother's arm on the other side pulling him through.

Teri Garr said the little girl playing her daughter improvised the line "There's a dead fly in my potatoes" in the dinner scene.

According to Vilmos Zsigmond, Spielberg used to watch one or two movies every night during production, getting ideas from them and coming to the set the next day with orders for new sketches to be created. One day while he was urging the crew to work faster, veteran gaffer Earl Gilbert said, "Steven, if you would stop watching those f***ing movies every night, we would be on schedule."

Spielberg donated $100,000 to the Planetary Society in 1985 to fund a system using a Harvard telescope to scan the skies for radio signals from distant civilizations.

Writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins had walk-on roles as two of the lost airmen who emerge from the mother ship in the finale.

In her scathing Hollywood tell-all You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, producer Julia Phillips, who was fired from the production largely because her drug use was interfering with her work, blamed it on working with Spielberg; she described him as "a precocious seven-year-old" (the nicest of her descriptions of him) whose demands led to her stressful emotional state and cocaine problem.

When shooting was completed, Spielberg took the mother ship model home with him as a keepsake.

As filming dragged on, Francois Truffaut asked for and got an office within the Mobile, Alabama, complex where so much of the production time was spent. He worked on two screenplays, The Man Who Loved Women (1977) and The Green Room (1978). He also wrote long letters to people back in France and reworked some of his own dialogue in the movie.

Truffaut said that one of his discoveries while working in front of the camera was that "everybody says many nasty things behind the director's back."

Although there were mostly raves for the Special Edition re-release of the film in July 1980, some critics thought the scene showing Roy Neary entering the spaceship was a major letdown. Spielberg himself later said he never really wanted to do that scene and only agreed as a way to get the money to do his re-shoots and re-edits.

Public response to the Special Edition was not enthusiastic, and one audience member actually sued Columbia claiming their advertising led her to expect an entirely new movie.


DAVID LAUGHLIN (Bob Balaban): Who flies crates like these anymore?
PROJECT LEADER (J. Patrick McNamara): No one. These planes were reported missing in 1945.
DAVID LAUGHLIN: But it looks brand new. ... How the hell did it get here?

PROJECT LEADER: He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER (David Anderson): Air East 31, do you wish to file a report of any kind to us?
AIR EAST PILOT (Roy E. Richards): I wouldn't know what kind of report to file, Center.

ROY NEARY (Richard Dreyfuss): Okay, I'm gonna give you your choice, I'm not gonna be biased in any way. Tomorrow night you can play Goofy Golf, which means a lot of waiting and shoving and pushing, and probably getting a zero, or you can see Pinocchio, which is a lot of furry animals and magic, and you'll have a wonderful time. Okay? Now let's vote.

RONNIE NEARY (Teri Garr): Roy, what did it look like?
ROY: It was like an ice cream cone.
RONNIE: What flavor?
ROY: Orange. It was orange--and it wasn't like an ice cream cone. It was, it was more like a shell. You know, it was like this.
RONNIE: Like a taco? Was it like one of those Sara Lee, um, moon-shaped cookies? Those, those crescent cookies? Don't you think I'm taking this really well? I remember when we used to come to places like this just to look at each other... and snuggle.

ROY: I saw something last night that I can't explain. ... I'm going out there again tonight, you know.
RONNIE: No you're not.
ROY: This isn't a moon burn you know, goddam it.

ROY: I know this sounds crazy, but ever since yesterday on the road, I've been seeing this shape. Shaving cream, pillows... Dammit! I know this. I know what this is! This means something. This is important.

ROY: I guess you've noticed there's something a little strange with Dad. It's okay, though. I'm still Dad.

PORKY PIG: Happy BBBBBirthday you thing from another world you.

ROY: (shoveling soil into his kitchen window) Ronnie, if I don't do this, that's when I'm going to need a doctor.

DAVID LAUGHLIN: Excuse me. Before I got paid to uh speak French I, uh, I used to read maps. This first number is a longitude. ... These have to be earth coordinates.

BARRY (Cary Guffey): Toys!

BARRY: You can come and play now. Come in through the door.

FARMER (Roberts Blossom): I saw Bigfoot once! 1951! ... It made a sound that I would not want to hear twice in my life.

DIRTY TRICKS #4 (Kirk Raymond): (plotting about how to clear the Devil's Tower area of its population) Contaminated water. Affects people, crops, animals. Disease.
DIRTY TRICKS #3 (Robert Broyles): Yeah, epidemic.
DIRTY TRICKS #1 (John Ewing): What kind of disease?
DIRTY TRICKS #3: A plague. A plague epidemic.
DIRTY TRICKS #1: Nobody's gonna believe a plague in this day and age.
DIRTY TRICKS #2 (Keith Atkinson): Anthrax.
DIRTY TRICKS #4: Ranching country.
DIRTY TRICKS #2: There are a lot of sheep up in those hills.
WILD BILL (Warren Kemmerling): Wait, that's good, that's good, I like that. But it may not evacuate everybody. There's always some joker who thinks he's immune. What I need is something so scary it'll clear three hundred square miles of every living Christian soul.

DAVID LAUGHLIN: Mr. Neary, are you an artist or a painter?
ROY: No.
DAVID LAUGHLIN: Have you been hearing a persistent ringing in your ears? An agreeable ringing?
Roy: No. ...
DAVID LAUGHLIN: Have you recently had a close encounter? A close encounter with something very unusual.
ROY: Who are you people? ... Is that it? Is that all you're gonna ask me? Well I got a couple of thousand goddamn questions, you know. I want to speak to someone in charge. I want to lodge a complaint. You have no right to make people crazy! You think I investigate every Walter Cronkite story there is? Huh? If this is just nerve gas, how come I know everything in such detail? I've never been here before. How come I know so much? What the hell is going on around here? Who the hell are you people?!

DAVID LAUGHLIN: This is a small group of people who have shared a vision in common.

CLAUDE LACOMBE (Francois Truffaut): Listen to me, Major Walsh, it is an event sociologic.

DAVID LAUGHLIN: We didn't choose this place! We didn't choose these people! They were invited!

PROJECT LEADER: Okay, watch the skies please. ... We now show uncorrelated targets approaching from the north-northwest.

PROJECT LEADER: If everything's ready here on the Dark Side of the Moon... play the five tones.

CLAUDE LACOMBE: Monsieur Neary, I envy you.

BARRY: (to departing spaceship) Goodbye.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

back to top
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

According to biographer Joseph McBride, the origins of Close Encounters of the Third Kind most likely go back to Spielberg watching a spectacular meteor shower as a young boy in Phoenix and observing the desert skies through his telescope. He also voraciously read and watched science fiction books, movies, and TV shows.

As a child, Spielberg enjoyed and admired films that came out of the popular wave of science fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly those directed by Jack Arnold: It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Spielberg has also credited two other childhood cinematic memories with being important to this movie's genesis. The first was the image of the mountain from the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Disney's Fantasia (1940). The other was the song "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio (1940). "I pretty much hung my story on the mood the song created, the way it affected me emotionally," he said. "The mountain became the symbolic end zone of the movie, and everything danced around that."

While living in Phoenix in 1964, at the age of 17, Spielberg made an 8mm sci-fi adventure film called Firelight on a budget of $500, shooting on evenings and weekends with a cast of high school drama students, that included his sister Nancy. The story centered on a group of scientists investigating sightings of colored lights in the sky and the subsequent disappearance of people, animals, and objects from the fictional town of Freeport, Arizona. Among the disappeared are a unit of soldiers and a little girl whose mother has a heart attack as a result. The story also featured marital discord between one of the scientists and his wife, and another scientist's obsessive efforts to convince the government that extraterrestrial life exists. Spielberg showed the movie at a local cinema and charged $1 per ticket; he made a profit of $1.

Years later, when seeking work in Hollywood, Spielberg gave two reels of Firelight to a producer to demonstrate his abilities. The production company soon folded and the two reels were lost.

Another basis for Close Encounters was a short story Spielberg wrote in 1970 called "Experiences," which was set in a small-town lovers' lane in the Midwest where young people witness a mysterious light show in the night sky.

Spielberg never let go of the idea of making a feature-length film about contact with aliens on Earth. He first considered making a documentary about people who believe in UFOs, or even a low-budget feature using ideas from his earlier film. He realized, however that to fulfill his vision would require state-of-the-art technology costing far more than he initially estimated. Nevertheless, he held on to the idea: "Somehow I would have found the money. It's a movie I'd wanted to make for over ten years."

By the early 70s, Spielberg was starting to make a name for himself as a skillful young director after a few television series episodes and a critically acclaimed TV suspense movie Duel (1971). He had been given a shot at a theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), starring Goldie Hawn. While in post-production on that movie, he became friendly with the producers Michael and Julia Phillips, who were producing The Sting (1973). Spielberg asked the couple if he could pitch his story to them, telling them only that it was about UFOs and Watergate. Now calling it "Watch the Skies," after the famous line from the end of the sci-fi classic The Thing from Another World (1951), the story focused on a government cover-up of UFOs and the secret Project Blue Book.

Although he had been working successfully at Universal, Spielberg felt he didn't want to be too tied to one studio, so he and the Phillipses took his idea first to Fox, whose commitment seemed too lukewarm to them. Then they went to David Begelman, the new head of Columbia, who was much more enthusiastic about the idea and about Spielberg. Not that there weren't reservations. At the time, sci-fi had not been a popular film genre since the 1950s. The success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) notwithstanding, it was considered strictly B-movie material. But the financially ailing Columbia desperately needed a hit.

The group of people who frequently gathered at the Phillips' house in the summer of 1973 included future film writer and director Paul Schrader, who was then in development on the script for Taxi Driver (1976). Spielberg briefly flirted with the idea of directing that script and eventually agreed to be back-up director for it, a guarantee Columbia Pictures insisted on in the event that relative newcomer Martin Scorsese failed to meet their expectations. Schrader was raised in a very strict Dutch Calvinist family (so strict, he and his brother, screenwriter Leonard Schrader, were not allowed to see movies) and wrote the book Transcendental Style in Film (University of California, 1972), a study of the expression of the spiritual state in the works of directors Yasajiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer. Columbia and Spielberg thought this background ideal for tackling a work that had spiritual undertones in its look at humanity's longing for contact with beings from beyond Earth. Schrader was contracted to write the script for "Watch the Skies" for $35,000 and 2.5 percent of the profits.

"Watch the Skies" was scheduled to shoot in the fall of 1974, but the script was proving more difficult to pull together than expected. Because of the delays, Spielberg took on another project for the money. This "movie about a shark" he was contracted for turned out to be his blockbuster breakthrough and one of the most successful movies of all time, Jaws (1975).

At a certain point in development, the premise shifted away from the government conspiracy. Spielberg told a European interviewer in 1978, "I didn't want to beat it to death because in the U.S. it's pass. We have lived through Watergate, the CIA, and people already find them redundant." Schrader said this shift away from the UFO cover-up story was his principal contribution. "I thought it ought to be about a spiritual encounter. That idea stayed and germinated." According to Michael Phillips, it was he who suggested to Spielberg that the aliens should be friendly.

Years later, Spielberg said he thought Schrader's script, titled "Kingdom Come," was "one of the most embarrassing screenplays ever professionally turned in to a major studio or director. ... Paul went so far away on his own tangent, a terribly guilt-ridden story not about UFOs at all." The protagonist whose life is transformed by an encounter on a deserted country road in Schrader's draft was an Air Force officer whose story closely resembled that of real-life UFO expert Dr. J. Allen Hynek. Both Spielberg and Schrader claimed credit for that character, a vestige of whom remains in the movie as Major Benchley, a character named after Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.

Astronomer Hynek was a consultant to the U.S. Air Force on the Project Blue Book on Unidentified Flying Objects. He had been hired, he said, "to weed out obvious cases of astronomical phenomena--meteors, planets, twinkling stars, and other natural occurrences that could give rise to the flying saucers then being received." Once a confirmed skeptic, he eventually broke with the government and its mission to debunk UFOs at all cost and started his own Center for UFO Studies, if not as a true believer then at least as someone who had an open scientific mind to the possibility of visitors from outer space. In his 1972 book on the subject, he coined the term "close encounter." An encounter of the first kind was one in which a UFO is seen at close range but without any contact. The second type of encounter is one in which "physical effects on both animate and inanimate material are noted." A close encounter of the third kind is one in which the occupants of the unidentified craft are present.

As Schrader later put it, he and Spielberg had a falling out "over ideological lines." Schrader's protagonist, who is converted to a belief in UFOs after a close encounter, spends 15 years trying to pursue direct contact with aliens before eventually discovering the key to his mission lay not out in the universe but within himself. Spielberg had decided to make his lead character an ordinary civilian, an unremarkable man whose life has to change to meet the new challenge before him after his first encounter. Schrader refused to send off to another world "as the first example of Earth's intelligence, a man who wants to go set up a McDonald's franchise....Steven's infatuation with the common man was diametrically opposed to my religious infatuation with the redeeming hero--I wanted a biblical character to carry the message to the outer spheres."

Spielberg worked on a draft while he was editing and promoting Jaws. He thought his script was fairly well structured but that the characters were lacking. "Essentially I'm not a writer and I don't enjoy writing. I'd much rather collaborate. I need fresh ideas coming to me."

Spielberg was helped by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who wrote the screenplay for The Sugarland Express. Others who were involved in the project were John Hill, who wrote the second draft after Schrader's departure, Jerry Belson, and, by some accounts, David Giler. According to Julia Phillips, whose account of the making of the picture is far from flattering or sympathetic to Spielberg, Columbia financed "one under-the-table rewrite after another."

Spielberg wanted the final credits to read "Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg." Julia Phillips, who had a bitter falling out with him during production, said that Spielberg made her pressure everyone who worked on the script to drop their rights to credit. Schrader said he did so at Spielberg's request, "something I've come to regret in later years, because I had points tied to credit. So I gave up maybe a couple of million dollars that way." Schrader said he was assured nothing of his original script was in the final draft, but when he read it he saw that a character he had created was still present in the part of the French scientist Lacombe. He also thought the story had a spiritual dimension that was originally introduced in his script, and even the notion of the five musical tones had its roots in one of his earlier ideas about five colors associated with the aliens.

Michael Phillips believes Schrader's exclusion from the credits is justified because he wrote "a very different film...a much more serious quest.... It just wasn't a Steven Spielberg film; it wasn't a joyous roller-coaster. Close Encounters is really Steven's script. It was a project that he had started in his childhood and had always wanted to do. He got help from his friends and colleagues here and there, but 99.9 percent is Steven Spielberg."

The filmmakers still had to deal with one other person who felt he had made unacknowledged contributions. Hynek wrote a sharp letter to the producers pointing out they were appropriating his terminology and ideas without credit or payment. As a result, they recruited him as technical consultant, and he was given a cameo as part of the crowd that welcomes the aliens at the end.

by Rob Nixon

Key source material for this section: Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

back to top
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

For Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg originally planned to cast Jack Nicholson in the lead role of Roy Neary, a part he said had been written for a 45-year-old man, but Nicholson was committed to other projects. Waiting for him would have delayed production another two years. Some reports say Richard Dreyfuss campaigned for the role while he was working for Spielberg on Jaws (1975), others say he was reluctant to accept it until producer Julia Phillips began sending scripts to other actors, among them Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, both of whom were closer to the age Spielberg originally had in mind. In the end, Dreyfuss accepted the role for $300,000.

Spielberg was intimidated by the prospect of asking one of his cinematic heroes, French director Francois Truffaut, to play the part of Lacombe. He considered a few other actors, among them Gerard Depardieu and Jean-Louis Trintignant, before finally getting the courage to ask Truffaut if he would consider being an actor in this production. Truffaut liked Spielberg's work and agreed but told him, "I am not an actor; I can only play myself." Spielberg replied that was exactly what he wanted, and Truffaut signed on for $75,000.

When the project was first pitched to Columbia in 1973, Spielberg said it would cost $2.7 million to make. Due to delays caused by script development problems, he went on to make Jaws, a huge success that gave him more status and bargaining power with the studio. At that point, exhausted and frazzled from the difficult location work on the shark movie, Spielberg decided he wanted to make Close Encounters entirely in the studio, and the budget was set at $4.1 million. As time went on and production ideas and plans grew more elaborate, it became clear more money would be needed, a prospect not looked on favorably by the financially strapped studio. Special effects creator Douglas Trumbull was surprised by the original low budget because he had estimated early on that his effects alone would cost about $3 million. The final figure for effects was fairly close to that.

One of the reasons behind new cost increases was Spielberg's decision to release the film in 70mm using a process that allowed for a wider magnetic sound track to let him create greater audio impact as well as visual.

Beyond having to manage the myriad of complex technical and artistic details involved, Spielberg would find he also had to spend a lot of time and energy battling the studio for more and more money, a task he wasn't prepared for and didn't like. At one point later in production, the studio refused to shell out several thousand dollars for the effect of the Devil's Tower control room glass shattering and Spielberg used his own money for it.

While making Jaws, Steven Spielberg was sure he was in the midst of the most difficult production he would ever have to tackle. He would come to find Close Encounters to be "twice as bad, and twice as expensive, as well."

Preproduction began with a year's worth of conceptual planning between Spielberg and illustrator George Jensen, who created thousands of sketches from the visual ideas he and Spielberg exchanged. The two plotted details of seven major sequences, including the 30-minute finale.

The production began shooting on December 29, 1975, at an air traffic control center in Palmdale, California, so that Columbia, juggling its very shaky resources, could qualify for a tax shelter. That shoot wrapped after two days and filming would not resume again until the following May.

When principal photography began again on May 16, 1976, the budget had risen in stages to $11 million, and kept climbing as Spielberg expanded his ideas.

Because the complicated and extensive visual effects were stretching the limits of what had been done before, Spielberg also discovered a difficult new challenge in having to shoot scenes without an exact idea of how they would look when special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull completed them and added them to the film in post-production, months after principal photography was finished. On Jaws, the effects were difficult, but they were mechanical and physical, right there before him every day. The unknown of working around optical effects to be added later meant a more tense on-set atmosphere. "I'll never be able to thank him enough for having the confidence and the patience to see it through time and not panic," Trumbull told Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride. "There was enormous pressure on the production all the time from the studio to keep moving on."

The actors had to spend a lot of time acting to objects and things that weren't there and being told by Spielberg what they were looking at and how to react. "For weeks we were just sitting on a rock, shifting positions, pretending to look at the landing site and the sky," Melinda Dillon said. "It was a great acting exercise." Francois Truffaut, however, found it very difficult, finally giving himself over to be nothing more than another object in the "grand cartoon strip" of 2,000 storyboard sketches Spielberg had shown him. When Richard Dreyfuss saw the final picture, he was upset with several moments of his performance, believing he would have reacted quite differently if he had seen the actual effects.

Special effects were a part of more than 200 different shots in the movie, and some of them contained as many as 18 separate visual elements, including dozens of matte paintings and animated sequences. With no knowledge of such techniques, Spielberg depended heavily on Douglas Trumbull, who was effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). "If Trumbull hadn't accepted the job," Spielberg said in a 1978 article, "I'd still be on the Columbia back lot trying to get a cloud to materialize from thin air."

Spielberg ran a few tests of computer generated imagery (CGI) now the industry standard but then in its very first stages of development. He decided none of it looked believable.

A digital system called the Electronic Motion Control System was employed to record and program camera movements so they could be duplicated in post-production when putting live-action photography together with the matching miniature effects.

Production designer Joe Alves drove 2,700 miles through the West to find a suitable mountain site for the mother ship landing. He finally suggested Devil's Tower in Wyoming, which closely resembled prominent features of Monument Valley, where John Ford shot movies like The Searchers (1956). Devil's Tower was preferable because it was less familiar to movie audiences and a more solitary and abrupt intrusion on the landscape. These features made the sheer, jagged-edge rock rising nearly 1,300 feet from the surrounding terrain eerie and imposing.

Spielberg and Alves at first thought they would build the landing site in Monument Valley but realized that would present great difficulties in controlling climate and lighting conditions. They settled on an abandoned hangar near Mobile, Alabama where they thought they'd have greater control over the enormous $700,000 set. Bigger than a football field and six times the size of the largest Hollywood sound stage, the hangar harbored its own climate, trapping humidity that sometimes caused clouds and precipitation during filming. Dozens of very large lights were needed, and the 200 extras involved necessitated careful choreography of movement. All of this meant frequent delays and rising costs. The scenes filmed on this set accounted for only about a fifth of the film's running time but took up easily half of the shooting schedule. Spielberg stated, "That set became our shark on this picture."

Vilmos Zsigmond, the director of photography on Spielberg's debut feature The Sugarland Express (1974), returned to work with Spielberg after passing up the job of shooting Jaws. He found the director more commanding and less eager to discuss options than previously, but Zsigmond was enthusiastic to be on the picture. "[Close Encounters] had the smell of a great movie. We fell into sandtraps not because anybody made mistakes but because we were making things that had never been done before." Zsigmond found himself blamed for many of those "sandtraps" by producer Julia Phillips and the studio, who almost fired him over his insistence that he needed at least one day to pre-light the enormous set. Nevertheless, Zsigmond refused to give in to pressure to use less lighting, and he was supported in this by Spielberg and especially Trumbull, who knew what it would take to match the scenes to the special effects. After the first two months of shooting in Mobile, when studio executives and financial backers began to show up on set, Julia Phillips insisted on firing him. Several other cinematographers were called as potential replacements--John Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs, Ernest Laszlo--but most of them were friends of Zsigmond and agreed that if he couldn't handle the job, no one could.

Although Spielberg continued to support Zsigmond, creating what the cinematographer called "a very rewarding" experience, Zsigmond was not asked to shoot additional sequences and shots that were needed after the company left Alabama. He believed this was largely the work of Julia Phillips and the studio. Although Zsigmond shot about 90 percent of the picture, additional material (the India sequence, the discovery of the lost Air Force squadron, etc.) was shot by others, primarily William Fraker, as well as Douglas Slocombe, Alonzo, and Kovacs, all of whom received on-screen credit as additional directors of photography, a vindictive move by Phillips, by her own admission.

Julia Phillips, who by this time had developed a serious cocaine problem and was divorced from producer Michael Phillips, was forced off the picture by Columbia during post-production in 1977.

Spielberg's original conception of the mother ship was an enormous black object that blotted out the sky and emitted light from the bottom, but that evolved into the brightly lit and less threatening image we know today. One of the influences on the final design was a huge oil refinery that Spielberg saw while filming the India sequence (the first overseas location shoot in his career), covered with pipes, tubes, walkways, and thousands of small lights. The bottom of the ship took form after he drove up into the hills of Los Angeles and looked upside down at the great expanse of city lights.

Trumbull and Spielberg went through several conceptions of what the UFOs would look like. One abandoned idea was to have them resemble structures and logos familiar on Earth, such as those for McDonalds and Chevron, to suggest the aliens were using human symbols to make their crafts appear less threatening.

Trumbull achieved the dramatic cloud effects by filling a tank half full of salt water with lighter fresh water on top, then injecting paint into the top layer. The paint billowed through the fresh water but flattened out at the top of the heavier salt water, creating the effect we see on screen.

The aliens who appear at the end were achieved through several different methods. The first, aborted attempt involved putting an E.T. suit on a chimp, placing the animal on roller skates, and rolling it down a ramp. The chimp kept falling and laughing, but finally took off the alien costume head and threw it at the crew. Another plan to have 70 puppets operated by 70 puppeteers on scaffold high over the set was also scrapped as unwieldy, particularly since before today's digital capabilities, it would be nearly impossible to remove all traces of the wires from the film.

The little aliens who gather around Dreyfuss were played by six-year-old girls from dance schools wearing large heads and gloves. On film, the costumes looked either too obviously fake or more threatening than they should have been so Zsigmond overexposed them to soften the details.

The large, long-armed alien character who came to be known as Puck was a puppet created by marionette maker Bob Baker with an upper torso and head and articulating features for close-ups by Carlo Rambaldi, who had created the ape's face in the remake of King Kong (1976). Eight people operated the mechanisms to control the puppet, and Spielberg was so pleased with it, according to Rambaldi, he often played with it. The face worked particularly well in the moment when the creature exchanges beaming smiles with Truffaut's character. Truffaut became so enchanted with it, he would go over to greet it every morning on the set.

After a while, Truffaut found the long shoot tiring and he was frustrated over not being able to get on with his own directing work. He also got a good dose of Hollywood reality, noting to Teri Garr that for the $250,000 it cost to do a single helicopter shot, he could make an entire movie. Still, the experience gave him good insight into what it takes to act in film. All in all, Truffaut respected Spielberg for his outward calm, patience and good humor and found that despite his own relative lack of experience in front of the camera (having acted only twice in his own movies), "several times during the shooting [Spielberg] made me...come out of myself. Thanks to that, I discovered a real pleasure as an actor." Truffaut also added, "In the face of overwhelming hardships and innumerable complications that would, I suspect, have discouraged most directors, Steven Spielberg's perseverance and fortitude were simply amazing."

During a fierce summer storm, the side of the hangar blew off. Luckily no one was hurt, but the accident caused further delays while it was repaired. Richard Dreyfuss later said, "Part of the shoot was a nightmare. It went from fun to frightening."

Melinda Dillon said because it was done without rehearsal, the scene in the kitchen with all the objects flying around was truly scary, and her alarmed reactions were often quite real and spontaneous as she tried to protect herself and the young actor playing her son, Cary Guffey.

Spielberg got the wondrous expressions on Cary Guffey's face, in the scenes where his character sees the UFOs and aliens, by using visual aides, such as slowing unwrapping toys at a height that made it look like the boy was peering up at the sky toward the UFOs. In the scene where the boy looks into the kitchen, Spielberg had a make-up man in a gorilla suit on one side of the set. The boy's expression revealed a certain alarm when he saw it, then a partition on the other side was dropped, revealing Spielberg in a bunny suit, making the boy smile but still wary of the gorilla. The make-up man took off the gorilla mask and Guffey, seeing his friend there, began to laugh.

Guffey really did cry at the end of the movie when he said goodbye to the aliens. Spielberg told him to think of all his friends going away forever.

In an interview for the "making-of" featurette on the DVD release, a grown Guffey said it was embarrassing for him to shoot the scene of him exiting the mother ship because he had to wear ballet slippers to keep from falling on the ramp.

The filming was done under utmost secrecy to keep the element of surprise until it finally became ready for release and also to prevent anyone ripping off the idea and making some quick knockoff of it. Security at the Mobile hangar was so tight that even Spielberg was denied entrance one day when he forgot his ID card.

According to producer Michael Phillips, the company had six different wrap parties, believing each time that principal photography was complete. Then Spielberg would come up with something else he wanted to do.

Spielberg edited the film secretly, not at the studio but in a rented apartment in Marina del Rey under guard.

Spielberg wanted to release his movie in the spring of 1978, but Columbia forced him to have it ready by fall 1977. That left him with many aspects he felt needed changing or correcting. So just a few years later, he created a new version of the film, known as the "Special Edition," and released it in 1980. He eliminated some scenes he felt didn't work, such as Dreyfuss digging up his yard and throwing parts of it through the kitchen window to build his vision of the mountain; Spielberg restored scenes he originally shot but never used in the first release, among them the ship discovered in the Gobi desert and sequences of Dreyfuss mentally struggling with the strange compulsion that overtakes him after encountering the UFO; he also shot brand new scenes, most notably the new finale, which shows what Dreyfuss sees when he enters the ship. This last addition was made at the urging of Columbia, who made funding for the other work contingent on its inclusion so that they would have something substantial to hang a marketing campaign on. Spielberg reworked Close Encounters of the Third Kind again for a 1998 home video release, re-editing the 1977 version with elements of the 1980 cut, but eliminating the final interior spaceship scene.

by Rob Nixon

Key source material for this section: Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

back to top
teaser Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Steven Spielberg's follow-up to his 1975 smash hit Jaws, was a risky project because this science fiction foray was very different from the alien encounter movies of the 1940s and 50s that little Stevie Spielberg grew up on. It was also infinitely more expensive than the low-budget fare that dominated much of the science fiction genre in the sixties until the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Infused with a post-Watergate paranoia and featuring a middle-class, family-man hero who grows increasingly obsessive in the course of the film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind broke new ground for the science fiction genre in its exploration of the UFO phenomena. No longer just concerned with the true intentions of visitors from outer space, it was the government's intervention and ulterior motives that became the cause for alarm. In earlier science fiction film classics such as The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), government leaders might make wrong decisions, but they were rarely depicted with such suspicion and disdain as they are in Close Encounters.

Originally, Spielberg wanted Jack Nicholson for the role of Roy Neary but Richard Dreyfuss, who had just appeared in Jaws, successfully campaigned for the role and won Spielberg over. Spielberg also cast acclaimed director Francois Truffaut in a major role modeled on French UFO expert Jacques Vallee. As for the film, it was inspired by The UFO Experience by Dr. J. Allen Hynek who serves as the film's technical advisor and also has a brief cameo. Spielberg wrote the screenplay himself, a feat he has not repeated since.

The movie's climax featuring the arrival of the "Mothership" was shot in a dirigible hangar in Mobile, Alabama and was six times the size of a normal Hollywood sound stage. There were also extensive sequences shot at Devil's Tower in Wyoming as well as in India, which required crowd sequences involving thousands of extras. When the film finally went into release, it became one of Spielberg's most financially successful films and earned eight Academy Award nominations, winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Now for an obscure piece of trivia: if you have very sharp eyes, be sure to look for a hitchhiker on the bottom of the "Mothership" as it passes over Devil's Tower in the climax of the film. Look closely and you can see none other than R2-D2, the little droid hero from Star Wars, also released in 1977 and directed by one of Spielberg's pals, George Lucas.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips, Clark L. Paylow
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood (uncredited), Jerry Belson (uncredited), John Hill (uncredited), Matthew Robbins (uncredited), Paul Schrader (uncredited)
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond, William A. Fraker, Douglas Slocombe
Editing: Michael Kahn
Art Direction: Daniel A. Lomino
Production Design: Joe Alves
Music: John Williams
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), Terri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin), Francois Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler), Roberts Blossom (Farmer), Lance Henriksen (Robert), George DiCenzo (Major Benchley).
C-138m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Scott McGee

back to top
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Awards & Honors

In 2007, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

In American Film Institute polls, Close Encounters has been voted the 64th greatest film of all time, 31st most heart-pounding, and 58th most inspiring.

In 2011, the ABC television network aired a primetime special, "Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time," that counted down the best movies chosen by fans based on results of a poll conducted by ABC and People magazine. Close Encounters was selected as the #5 Best Sci-Fi Film.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind received Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond) and a Special Achievement Award to Frank E. Warner for sound effects editing. It was also nominated for Best Director, Supporting Actress (Melinda Dillon), Art Direction-Set Decoration, Editing, Visual Effects, Sound, Original Score

Other awards include:
Saturn Awards (Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films): Best Director, Music, Writing. Nominations: Best Film, Actor (Richard Dreyfuss), Actress (Melinda Dillon), Special Effects

British Academy Awards: Best Production Design/Art Direction. Nominations: Best Film, Director, Supporting Actor (Francois Truffaut), Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound

Golden Globe nominations: Best Picture - Drama, Director, Screenplay, Score

David di Donatello Award (Italy) for Best Foreign Film

Directors Guild of America nomination for Steven Spielberg

Golden Screen Award (Germany) for Best Film

Grammy Awards for Best Album of Original Score, Instrumental Composition (both to John Williams)

Hugo Awards (science fiction) nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation

Motion Picture Sound Editors Award winner

National Board of Review Special Citation for Special Effects

Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen


"Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a daring film concept which in its special and technical effects has been superbly realized. Steven Spielberg's film climaxes in final 35 minutes with an almost ethereal confrontation with life forms from another world; the first 100 minutes, however, are somewhat redundant in exposition and irritating in tone. Yet much advance public interest gives the Columbia Pictures release a strong commercial potential." - Murf. Variety, November 9, 1977

"Steven Spielberg's giant, spectacular Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which opened at the Ziegfeld Theater yesterday, is the best--and most elaborate--1950's science fiction movie ever made, a work that borrows its narrative shape and its concerns from those earlier films, but enhances them with what looks like the latest developments in movie and space technology. If, indeed, we are not alone, it would be fun to believe that the creatures who may one day visit us are of the order the Mr. Spielberg has conceived--with, I should add, a certain amount of courage and an entirely straight face." - Vincent Canby, New York Times, November 17, 1977

"Mr. Spielberg, a movie nut who appears to relate everything in his life to movies, has made no...mistake with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the best 1950's science-fiction film I've ever seen, not because it's different in any genre-breaking way, but because it's classier and far more intelligent." - Vincent Canby, New York Times, November 19, 1977

"I thought the original film was an astonishing achievement, capturing the feeling of awe and wonder we have when considering the likelihood of life beyond the Earth. I gave that first version a four-star rating. This new version gets another four stars: It is, quite simply, a better film -- so much better that it might inspire the uncharitable question, 'Why didn't Spielberg make it this good the first time?'" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, reviewing the Special Edition re-release, January 1, 1980

"What has happened is a phenomenon in the annals of film. Director Steven Spielberg has taken his flawed 1977 masterpiece and, by judicious editing and addition of several scenes, has turned his work into an authentic masterpiece." - Arthur Knight, writing about the Special Edition release in the The Hollywood Reporter, July 1980

"An original vision, technically superb, poetic without apparently being aware of it, a movie that for all its fancy technology doesn't shortchange or patronize the ordinary people who are its characters. ... Mr. Spielberg's cuts have, indeed, had the effect of making the domestic problems of Roy Neary [and his family]...seem much less tiresome and much more human--moving as well as comic." - Vincent Canby on the Special Edition, New York Times, August 21, 1980

"As early references to The Ten Commandments [1956] and Chuck Jones's Warner cartoons show, the film seems less concerned with science fiction than with recapturing the wonder of a child's first experience of the cinema, and the surprising thing is that Spielberg moves into this territory so effectively. There are some awkward touches (Truffaut never ceases to be Truffaut, while some of the comedy scenes are a little overplayed), but they're small price to pay for the first film in years to give its audiences a tingle of shocked emotion that is not entirely based either on fear or on suspense." - David Pirie, Time Out Film Guide (Penguin Books, 2000)

by Rob Nixon

back to top