“This means something. This is important.”
The 1970’s were a weird time. I’m not sure why – maybe it was just the tide receding from the counter-culture highs of the 60’s, leaving odd cultural detritus behind. Things like pet rocks, disco, and key parties. Political assassinations, oil crises and environmental paranoia. Bigfoot, ancient astronauts, and UFOs. Even children’s television was weird and dark – there’s a reason that when someone finally made a movie about The Banana Splits it was a horror movie. (Just waiting on that H. R. Puffenstuff film. Talk about terrifying.)
All I’m saying is that yeah, every decade has its oddities, but the 1970’s was DARK weird. And then, suddenly, in 1977, things seemed to get a little bit brighter. Part of that was the release of Star Wars, of course (although billions of people die on-screen in that film – not exactly a feel-good moment). And part of it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Most of our alien contact stories are not ones with happy endings. They tend to end badly for good ol’ humanity. Generally, we seem to be of the opinion that any advanced civilization isn’t going to want to have much to do with us, and if they do we’ll just be overwhelmed by them. That’s if they’re not just ravening monsters, looking for food or a warm place to hide. Your standard UFO stories were rife with abductions, cattle mutilations, and the ever-popular probing.
And then there’s Close Encounters. A genuinely positive film about aliens visiting earth. A film that approaches the idea of first contact with an advanced civilization from outer space with an almost child-like sense of wonder. A movie that includes a military and governmental conspiracy to cover up the fact that aliens are real and visiting our little planet but doesn’t turn that into an opportunity for moralizing or tragedy. A film that embodies that creaky Oscar Wilde quote about us all being in the gutter, “but some of us are looking at the stars.” Steven Spielberg made us think that maybe, just maybe, the aliens might be good guys. In the 1970’s that was definitely going against the grain.
What Close Encounters of the Third Kind Means to Us
When I was an adolescent, my parent’s bought me Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown book series. It was expensive and probably more of a hardship for my family back then than I realized at the time. Still, I cherished those books. I thumbed through them constantly, my imagination running wild with images of the Bigfoot, Mokele-Mbembe, and the Loch Ness Monster. But nothing set the gears of my imagination in motion quite like the UFO phenomenon. I was convinced they were out there. I wondered where they came from. I wondered what they looked like, how their ships worked, what they wanted with us. I wondered.
And I guess that’s what it comes down to: wonder. When I was a kid, I was full of wonder. Full of awe at what could be out there. The possibilities. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind puts me back in touch with that kid who was so full of wonder and awe. That kid who thought anything was possible. The kid who believed.
I actually just watched this one not too long ago on PlutoTV, I think, and god damn this movie is still solid AF. Seventies and early eighties Speilberg may be some of the best Speilberg, if you ask me. This film shows he can work with a big budget and still tell a personal and touching story. Plus, it’s got such great visuals and another fantastic score by John Williams. Richard Dreyfuss plays everyman Roy Neary to pure perfection. Even if he is kind of a dick for basically bailing on his family. But who wouldn’t do the same after all that he’s seen and has a chance to go to space? It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
As much as anyone loves E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, I think this is Speilberg’s best sci-fi/alien movie.
Close Encounters of The First Kind – Sightings
Steven Spielberg seems to have wanted to make a movie about UFOs from an early age. At 17 he even finished a full-length Super-8 film about alien abductions called Firelight. (Sadly, the film no longer exists in its entirety, though you can see some clips on YouTube) In the early 70’s, while completing work on The Sugarland Express, he landed a development deal with Columbia Pictures to make a science-fiction film he was then calling Watch the Skies. Jaws ended up going into production first, and the success of that film allowed Spielberg to negotiate a deal to make his film – now called Kingdom Come – with almost complete creative control.
There then followed a period of “development hell” in which multiple scripts were written by multiple parties, none of which seemed to hit on the tone that Spielberg wanted. In the end the director would write the screenplay himself, including some elements from previous iterations and including feedback from numerous parties, including Richard Dreyfuss – who would eventually convince Spielberg to cast him as the main character, Roy Neary.
Allen Hynek, an astronomer formerly attached to Project Blue Book (an investigation into UFO sightings by the US Air Force), was hired as a scientific adviser. The noted ufologist brought an element of authenticity to the script and described the project as being mostly based on the known facts of the UFO phenomenon at the top. He makes a cameo appearance as one of the spectators in the visitation at the end of the film.
Despite delays and difficulties (which would continue during production, including a storm that damaged one of the huge sets) the film finally began production in May, 1976. After over a decade of sightings – near misses, diversions and delays – Spielberg’s UFOs were finally going to land…
Close Encounters of The Second Kind – Physical Activity
Part of what makes Close Encounters so special are the, well, Special Effects. Even now the ships, the models (including both the Devil’s Tower set and the massive mother ship) and matte work still hold up alongside CGI blockbusters. One of my favorite early scenes – following Roy’s truck through a moonlit landscape as a UFO shadow crosses over – is just a miniature set, but damn if it doesn’t work. Visual Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumball (2001, The Andromeda Strain, Blade Runner) would joke that the FX budget was enough to shoot another film (though it was more than Spielberg’s initial budget pitch for the whole movie). Carlos Rambaldi (King Kong (1976), E.T.) created the aliens and the massive mother ship (based on an oil refinery at night) was designed by Ralph McQuarrie (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica). Many of the optical effects were shot in 70mm, so that visual detail wouldn’t be lost when reduced to standard 35mm.
Without great characters and acting, all of the otherworldly lights and spectacular clouds would be just pretty, but empty, scenery. Spielberg managed to put together an amazing cast, including the iconic director of The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut, as UFO expert Lacombe. Richard Dreyfuss as the everyman main character, Roy Neary, was cast after many big-name actors – including Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman – had passed. (Spielberg had originally wanted Steve McQueen to take the role – and I sometimes wonder what that would have looked like.) Dreyfuss badgered the director until he was cast, and he’s perfect as an average Joe succumbing to the dream of something greater than his 9-5 life. Poor Teri Garr does her best with the thankless role of Roni, Roy’s wife, but despite the few notes of humor she brings to the role, the film forces her into an antagonistic role with Roy and we end up preferring Jillian (A Christmas Story’s Mellinda Dillon), a woman whose young son (Cary Guffey) is abducted. Dillon is great as Jillian, somewhat ethereal herself, she manages to be believably terrified and determined in the face of an alien unknown. I also have a soft spot for Bob Balaban’s interpreter (and, crucially, mapmaker) character. He often articulates what we as an audience are thinking. (Like what the hell are a bunch of planes doing in the middle of the Sonoran desert?) Blink and you’ll miss an early appearance by Lance Henriksen.
And then there’s the music. The score itself is fantastic, as almost all John Williams’ scores are. Epic, playful, frenetic, unsettling, soothing and above all conveying a sense of awe when the visitors are present. Spielberg referred to Williams’ work on the film as “When You Wish Upon a Star meets science fiction” (the song being a touchstone for Spielberg’s vision of the film). Perhaps the most important piece of music created for the film, however, is a simple sequence of five notes – the audio calling card for the extraterrestrials. It’s an immediately recognizable musical phrase and was one of nearly 300 pieces Williams created for Spielberg to choose from. It’s use throughout the film is striking, never more so than the “conversation” between the authorities and the alien mothership. That five note piece of music is probably one of the most recognizable pieces in movie history.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Contact
As a kid I adored the show In Search of… Hosted by Leonard Nimoy, the half hour show featured explorations of the esoteric, the fringe, and the just plain weird. Any given episode would delve into Bigfoot, ghosts, the Nazca lines, crystal skulls or the Bermuda Triangle. There were at least a couple of episodes devoted to UFOs. I watched every episode I could in syndication, and it engendered a lifelong interest in things strange and unusual. (“I, myself, am strange and unusual.”) I guess it was my version of the Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown books.
So of course I love Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a film seemingly designed to lodge into the odd-shaped places in my brain and sit there, making weird hand signals as it tries to communicate using only five musical notes. I love the nods to classic weirdness, like the early scenes with the planes from Flight 19 and the Cotapaxi being found in the desert. I loved the neon lights of the alien ships, and how they could be ominous or playful. I like how Lacombe and Laughlin try to argue, admittedly without much vigour, for including those people “invited” to the first contact. And when I first saw the film I identified so much with Roy Neary, an average guy who jumps at the chance for an anything-but-average life.
If I’m honest, Roy’s journey hits different when you get older. At the time I first saw the film, in the throes of adolescence, choosing to leave your wife and kids to chase a shared hallucination halfway across the country made perfect sense. What does suburbia have to offer that can compare to the idea of meeting alien life? Of maybe even going with them to see their civilization? Not a damn thing. Now I think Roy’s more than a little selfish. He’s making a mountain out of mashed potatoes and that’s somehow enough to leave his wife and kids (who are way less annoying than I remember them being). The thing is, Richard Dreyfuss does such a good job portraying the wonder and bewilderment that Roy experiences that I’m somehow carried along. I’m still weirdly happy for him when he boards the alien ship at the end. And is there still a part of me that wistfully wishes for something similar? Maybe a little.
I like what Dhalgren says in his section above. There’s a sense of wonder to Close Encounters. A sense of childlike awe. It still touches me in the same way as when I first saw it. I guess that’s what I like most about the film – that positive outlook. As much as I enjoyed Jordan Peele’s Nope – a film that feels like it exists in a conversation with and opposition to Close Encounters – it was another film in the cynical take on what aliens could be in relation to us. I much prefer Spielberg’s movie. It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there could be wonderful life out there. And that they could, against all common sense, think that we are worthy of study and friendship.
Despite Close Encounters of the Third Kind being the most successful film Columbia Pictures had made up to that point (and it arguably saved the studio from bankruptcy) the studio passed on Spielberg’s next film idea. As he’d been working on the closing scenes of Close Encounters one of the possible options he’d toyed with including was a sort of exchange. That one of the aliens would stay behind, to learn from us as Roy would learn from them. Then he realized that this was an idea that deserved it’s own picture, that the story of an alien left on earth was a story that had legs. This was the idea that he took to Columbia and that they said “no thanks to.” So Spielberg went back to Universal Pictures with it, and combined it with a childhood imaginary friend and gave us E.T. The Extraterrestrial. (Suck it, Columbia.)
Beyond that, the success of Close Encounters as well as Star Wars (man 1977 was a good year for sci-fi) proved that there was an audience (and a massive one) for big-budget science fiction films. Without those films (not sure you can point to just one), we might never have gotten Alien or more Star Trek, or The X-Files or any of a half-dozen other sci-fi gems of screens big and small. Generations of filmmakers and scientists have pointed to Close Encounters as a pivotal touchstone in their own development and interests.
What’s your experience with Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Love it? Hate it? Have a UFO story you’d like to share? Start the conversation in the comments below!