STARRING: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, Gary Guffey & Francois Truffaut.
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg
1977 proved to be a defining year for science fiction. On one end of the scale, George Lucas’ Star Wars introduced an epic and adventurous space battle between good versus evil. But on the other end, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind introduced a whole new experience and terminology.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind represents a grounded affair which matches Spielberg’s approach and development of the film. At the time, Spielberg heavily believed in the UFO phenomenon with a strong belief that we had been visited by beings from another world. This was a film born out of the aftermath of the Watergate scandal where government conspiracies and a suspicious paranoia clouded the mindsets of everyday Americans. With so many reported sightings and similar accounts of alien encounters only fuelled the suspicion.
Although Spielberg is credited as the sole writer, he is aided by writers Paul Schrader, Hal Barwood, Jerry Belson, John Hill and Matthew Robbins. With the help of J. Allen Hynek, a scientific advisor for UFO studies, they collectively brought Spielberg’s pet project to life. But most importantly, they brought an honest validity to the unknown and to the sci-fi genre. For once it wasn’t set in space or some distant, other worldly dimension, a common thread of sci-fi films in that period. For most parts, this is a story that never leaves the planet.
While Spielberg has long since changed those opinions about the UFO phenomenon, that passionate innocence and open mindedness is felt throughout the film and it wouldn’t have worked without it.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind follows Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an ordinary guy who experiences something extraordinary. It is something that cannot be explained and the film charts the slow descent into an overwhelming obsession to understand the phenomenon. This change in circumstance affects his job, personal life and the eventual breakup of the family unit.
The great observation in Roy’s character is how we can easily relate and empathise with him. As the experience consumes him in his search for answers, he provides that gateway into unfamiliar territory. It is troubling, hypnotic and at times disturbing but always filled with believable childlike wonder, turning Close Encounters into a realistic human drama as well as a journey beyond our world.
Spielberg takes us on a global and expansive journey around the world from the Sonoran Desert to Dharamsala, India, highlighting how Roy is one part of the communication process with the aliens. Explored by Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and David Laughlin (Bob Balaban), they are the investigative researchers and scientists who try to provide the answers which may help Roy understand the bigger picture.
Close Encounters makes a great distinction in its premise. This is not a doomsday, end of the world prophecy scenario where the fate of the world is at stake and needs saving. Close Encounters optimistically imagines what communication would be like with aliens. It becomes a hopeful symbol of collaboration and art working together to reach beyond the stars, using bright lights, vibrant colours and an iconic sound to create a universal language. What that means for the future of humanity is deliberately left ambiguous, leaving the audience to draw our own conclusions based on faith and what we believe.
Like most of his films, Spielberg is excellent at conveying psychological fear, focussed heavily on the human perspective. Most films today showcase horror and fear through numerous jump scares and nightmarish visions but in Barry’s abduction, it is the simplicity of the fear. It is an unnerving scene built on suspense and tension, combining a parental fear, a playful innocence from Barry and a relentless unseen force as everyday household objects suddenly become part of the haunting and claustrophobic experience. While the aliens reveal their true purpose and nature towards the end of the film, in this one memorable scene Spielberg understands how an encounter of unknown nature can be powerful and tragic. Just like Roy, this moment propels Jillian (Melinda Dillon) onto her own investigative mission to find the truth.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is filled with unforgettable moments, a beautiful cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, stunning visual effects and an iconic score by frequent collaborator John Williams. While other Spielberg films get recognisable attention (and rightly so), Close Encounters should be ranked amongst his greatest and underrated masterpieces. Close Encounters is Spielberg’s most personal and heartfelt with its impact still felt today within the science fiction genre.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is now on release in select cinemas with a 4K restoration.