Starring Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, J. Patrick McNamara, Warren J. Kemmerling, Roberts Blossom, Philip Dodds, Cary Guffey
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Expectations: Love it. Haven’t seen it in a while.
Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterful film, bursting at the seams with a wealth of beautifully composed shots, wonderful John Williams music and a great sense of wonder. This is the kind of film only a budding filmmaker could have made, a true love letter to the dreamer fueled on passion and heart. This is made all the more interesting by the fact that in this case, the dream itself is implanted into our hero’s mind by the extraterrestrials. Much in the same way, Spielberg has inserted his own vision of first contact into millions of minds, forever changing the way we look at aliens.
Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is an everyday man with an electric company job. He gets a call one night as the power goes down around the city. In his truck on his way to investigate, a mysterious light singles out his truck and quickly flies off before Roy can figure out exactly what he’s just seen. He hears a report of a sighting on the squawk box and heads in the direction, only to find a small group of people already waiting there. Their watchful eyes give away that they are not here by chance. Some small ships with bright-colored lights turn the corner and fly overhead. If Roy was hallucinating before, there is no question now. He just saw a UFO.
Close Encounters has the distinction of being the only film where Spielberg is credited as writer/director. Not being a writer by trade, a number of uncredited writers helped him out at various stages of the game, but regardless, this is his story. This is the one that kept him up at nights, wondering and theorizing. This one is special in his heart and that passion is evident throughout the finished film. The story first came about as a student film named Firelight, made in 1964 for $500. I’m unclear just how close the two films are in terms of story, but the basic premise is shared. In any case, the thought of first contact had been on Spielberg’s mind for years leading up to making Close Encounters, so I’m sure just making the film fulfilled a big dream of his.
For Close Encounters to work effectively on you, you need to approach the film with a general wonder about the universe already installed. I’m sure there are people out there that will have their sense of wonder awoken by the film, but to truly connect with the story and participate in the journey, you should have given some thought to the existence of life outside of Earth before watching the film. This way when Roy becomes implanted with the visions of Devil’s Tower and he is compelled to go there, he is also transformed into a stand-in for your own hopes and dreams. This may not have been his lifelong goal, but he was selected and can do nothing to fight the urge. The astronauts in the final scene, people who have prepared for this occasion specifically and dreamed about it their whole lives, are denied that final realization that Roy achieves. The viewers themselves are denied it as well, as despite our dreams they do not qualify us to go inside. Roy becomes a surrogate for all of us, a chosen example of humanity. What makes him special is never explained, and that’s just fine, as the ambiguity of the final scenes are perfect. Obviously if you’re watching the Special Edition, you do get to see inside the ship, but I would argue that this only diminishes the film and the power of its mystery.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-winning cinematography is absolutely astounding, perfectly capturing every aspect of the production. Douglas Trumball’s work on the colored lights of the alien ships is without equal in the history of cinema and are especially wondrous. The film hinges on these FX grabbing you and being ultimately believable and they still achieve that to this day. The film compositing work on this movie is also amazing, once again proving that the pain-staking work of old can still rival the hours of work by multiple computer technicians. Seriously, this is one of the most technically sound special effects movies of all time, with near seamless integration into the finished frames of film. It’s truly mind-blowing how well-done it all is, and I can only imagine the mind-blast that was this and Star Wars coming out in the same year. They brought out all the stops in 1977.
The film is also superbly edited and has a slow, building pace that culminates in one of the greatest and most triumphant science fiction endings of all-time. As far as I know, Spielberg’s approach to aliens hadn’t been done in film prior to this, that is, a non-violent first contact. It plays out in quite the realistic way, with communication via technology and music. I’ve always loved the addition of basic musical tones here, as music is one of the most basic and primal aspects of our psyche, and it makes some sense that we might be able to communicate at some level with it. To be honest though, we never know exactly what we’re saying with the tones and for all I know Roy was thrown into a traditional Venusian BBQ pit with a Martian apple in his mouth just after the mothership’s hatch closed.
Anyway, editing! The film is one interesting beast to any student of film editing and the most recent DVD/Blu-ray release allows for some deep consideration of the various versions Close Encounters has been in over the years. Three different cuts are included, 1977 Theatrical, 1980 Special Edition, & 1998 Definitive Director’s Cut. I watched the 1998 cut this time around, and have the last couple of viewings. It’s a really well put together version of the film, combining elements from both previous cuts.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. After the wild success of Jaws, Spielberg was given incredible freedom to make this film how he liked, and boy did he hit it out of the park. While my mind might have strayed a bit here and there throughout this viewing, I attribute that more to my familiarity with the film, having seen it several times. I always think back to my first viewing of it though, where I was in absolute rapture over it. It’s such a wonderful journey that chooses not to follow a traditional film structure, much like how Roy’s journey to Devil’s Tower is anything but orthodox. An amazing film that holds up incredibly well over thirty years later. Can’t say that for a lot of special effects heavy films.