Close Encounters of the First Kind is a sighting. Close Encounters of the Second Kind is evidence. Closer Encounters of the Third Kind is contact. The film CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was my first encounter with a young wunderkind director named Steven Spielberg. I had tried to see Spielberg's previous work JAWS (1975) as I have chronicled before but my parents would have none of that. But they had no issue allowing me to see a film about man's first contact with extraterrestials. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS had such a profound affect on me that when my family and I moved back to Oregon from Massachusetts in 1996, I made us detour to the northeast Wyoming landmark Devil's Tower (featured prominently in CETK) to see where the spaceships landed. I saw no government base but plenty of ground squirrels and cows.
Spielberg's early films like JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND exhibited his promising technical prowess. But they were also very grounded and organic, showing a deep understanding of the family unit warts and all. His early heroes like Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) in JAWS, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), and Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS are funny, sort of brave, and vulnerable in the face of man eating sharks, head hunters, or huge spaceships. They're all adults grappling with their inner child.
I'm going to focus on the original, theatrical version of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the version I saw with my grandfather in the theater and the definitive version. Columbia Pictures and Spielberg would release two other versions. CETK: SPECIAL EDITION altered or deleted a few scenes and took the audience into the Mothership. My favorite addition was the UFO trackers finding the giant freighter Cotopaxi in the Gobi Desert that vanished en route from Charleston, South Carolina to Cuba in 1925. Then, Columbia released a DIRECTOR'S CUT that put back most of the original version and kept some of the Special Edition scenes, proving the original is probably the best version.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND begins with a trademark opening from writer/director Steven Spielberg that would become his signature. It's mysterious, breathtaking, and sets the tone for the rest of the film. A group of scientists led by Claude Lacombe (French director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter/cartographer David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) arrive in the Sonoran desert of Mexico to find eight pristine World War II fighter planes known as Flight 19. The planes disappeared on a training mission off the Florida coast in 1945. So why are they in the Mexican desert three decades later? This is a close encounter of the second kind. Evidence. A close encounter of the first kind (sighting) occurs when a commercial airliner reports encountering a UFO over Indiana. The pilots decline to register the sighting.
In Muncie, Indiana, strange lights visit the farmhouse of Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey). Electronic toys turn on by themselves. Barry runs off, chased by his mother. Across Indiana, the power grid ebbs and flows. Line man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent out to investigate a power outage in one of the counties. Roy has an alien encounter at a railroad crossing. He follows the lights to a ridge where he, Jillian, and many others watch three spacecraft fly by and disappear into the night skies. Roy tries to explain to his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) what he saw but she's skeptical. This UFO encounter begins to affect him.
Roy and Jillian begin seeing a shape that means something to them. In shaving cream or mashed potatoes, Roy keeps trying to make a mountain, an image left with him from his brief alien probe (if they had Google back in 1977 he would have found that image in seconds). Lacombe and his team travel to India where a village had an encounter with visitors from the sky, singing the same musical motif over and over again. Lacombe and Laughlin figure out the notes are actually map coordinates. The aliens are signaling they wish to make contact in northeast Wyoming.
The UFOs return to Indiana and steal little Barry away from his mother Jillian. Jillian goes to the government about her kidnapped son. At a press conference, the Air Force debunks the UFO theories while the government creates a fake railroad car disaster to block off Devil's Tower where the UFOs plan to land. Roy sees the news footage of Devil's Tower and realizes that's the image he's been seeing in his mind. Roy leaves his family and drives to Wyoming where he meets up with Jillian again. They manage to escape Lacombe and General "Wild Bill" Walsh (Warren J. Kemmerling) and climb close to Devil's Tower to view the first contact between extraterrestials and humans. The giant mothership arrives, unloading dozens of people "kidnapped" by the aliens including the WWII pilots of Flight 19 and little Barry. Lacombe offers Roy the chance to be one of the first humans to return with the aliens to their planet.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was only Spielberg's third feature film (he had directed episodes of TVs NIGHT GALLERY and the well received 1971 TV movie DUEL). It's a film filled with exuberance and bravura as the youthful Spielberg continues to find his cinematic footing. It's not a perfect film. The middle section with Roy's breakdown as he tries to make sense of the mountain image in his head runs a little long (hence the deletion of much of that sequence in the SPECIAL EDITION version). But it's Spielberg realizing that story is as important special effects. We need to be totally on board to Roy's almost breakdown (hence the return of the full scene in the Director's Cut).
Whether the aliens are good or evil in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is kept a secret for most of the film, Spielberg keeping his audience in suspense. At times, they seem playful and curious. But when they return and kidnap little Barry, we're not sure what they're intentions are, John Williams score terrifying and frightening. Probe? Autopsy? Child slavery? Luckily, CLOSER ENCOUNTERS is about the wonder of making contact with beings from another world, uniting and exploring for a common good. Barry will be reunited with his mother Jillian, none the worse for wear. Visual Effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) brings Spielberg's vision to reality with spaceships we've never seen before.
Speilberg draws influence from some old masters in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well as hints at future films he will make. The overlapping dialogue of the air traffic controllers has the feel of dialogue in a Robert Altman movie like MASH (1970). Roy and Jillian's escape toward Devil's Tower (a National Monument) reminds me of Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) as they stumbled around Mt. Rushmore. Even John Williams's score during that scene hearkens to Hitchcock's favorite composer Bernard Herrmann. And Spielberg gets to stage a huge scene at a train station a la David Lean (DR. ZHIVAGO) with thousands of extras as Roy and Jillian reunite in Wyoming.
Spielberg would revisit extraterrestials and humans co-mingling on a smaller, more intimate scale with his E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTIAL in 1982. Later, an older more cynical Spielberg would remake H.G. Welles tale of bad aliens wreaking destruction on earth in WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). The scenes of toy monkeys, vacuum cleaners, and other electronic gadgets turning on by themselves (with help from the aliens) in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is a harbinger of some similar set pieces in the Spielberg produced ghost story POLTERGEIST (also 1982) directed by Tobe Hooper (with some uncredited direction by Spielberg himself) especially the clown sequence and some other mischief by the angry poltergeists.
Disney's PINOCHHIO shows up several times in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Roy's toy train crashes into a Pinocchio toy early in the film. Later, Roy wants to take his kids to see PINOCCHIO (1940)instead of playing Goofy Golf. Roy and Spielberg are still boys like Pinocchio who are not ready to be men just yet. Composer John Williams will even insert a small riff of 'When You Wish Upon A Star' from PINOCCHIO as the scientists gaze at the Mothership which itself resembles a colorful, twinkling star.
Richard Dreyfuss catapulted to fame with Spielberg's JAWS but CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND further established him as a rising star. He exudes awe and astonishment as Roy Neary but also sorrow and pain when his wife and kids leave him. Dreyfuss would have a great run winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in Herbert Ross's THE GOODBYE GIRL (also 1977) and starring in the successful STAKEOUT films with Emilio Estavez in the late 80s/early 90s.
I don't know if it was a Hitchcock blonde thing but Spielberg cast blondes at the beginning of his career. Goldie Hawn in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), Lorraine Gary in JAWS, and later Dee Wallace in E.T. THE EXRATERRESTIAL. For CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND he went with two blondes. Melinda Dillon as Jillian and Teri Garr as Roy's wife Ronnie Neary. Dillon and Garr were sought after actresses at the time. Dillon appeared in SLAP SHOT (also 1977) and ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981) both with Paul Newman. Dillon will forever be remembered as Ralphie's Mother in Bob Clark's A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). Garr showed her comedic talents in Mel Brooks YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) and played the jilted girlfriend of Dustin Hoffman in Sydney Pollack's TOOTSIE (1982). In CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, Garr has a more dramatic part, trying to hold her family together as her husband Roy appears to be losing his mind.
What inspiration by Spielberg who was leading this American New Wave movement of young American directors (like Coppola and Scorsese) in the 70s to cast one of the leaders of the French New Wave film movement of the 60's director Francois Truffaut as research scientist Claude Lacombe. Lacombe is as child-like as Roy in his search for the truth as he crosses the globe following the extraterrestials path and signs. Like Truffaut, Spielberg shows great skill for directing children whether it's Cary Guffey as little Barry in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or Henry Thomas in E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTIAL or young Christian Bale in EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987).
Spielberg also shows a knack for casting actors who look like nerdy scientists and government officials. Bob Balaban as Lacombe's interpreter Laughlin, J. Patrick McNamara as the Project Leader, and Merrill Connally as the Team Leader are all uniformly square looking and perfect. And look for familiar faces Lance Henricksen (ALIENS) and Carl Weathers (ROCKY) in small roles in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.
After hits like JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the world was Spielberg's oyster. But as often happens when success comes quickly (see Michael Cimino), Spielberg would hit a bump in the road in 1979 with his next project, the over budget, very loud, out of control World War II comedy 1941 about an imagined Japanese attack on the west coast of the United States. It would be a bomb and nearly sink Spielberg. But George Lucas would step in and hire Spielberg to direct an idea he had based on the adventure serials he loved as a kid called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Spielberg would learn from Lucas how to be economical and practical and stay on budget and the rest is history.Spielberg would never look back and go on an incredible run of blockbuster hits.
When I decided to review CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, I had no idea that this would be its 40th Anniversary in 2017. As I said at the beginning, it seems just like yesterday that I went to watch it with my grandfather. Like STAR WARS (1977), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was another joyous film watching experience for me. Watching it again, that feeling hasn't changed. I guess the only that that has changed is my belief in UFOs. With all our camera phones and dashboard cameras and Go-Pros, no one has been able to capture a credible photo of a flying saucer or large bulbous-headed alien. I want to believe there is life out there. And filmmakers want to believe it too. More recent films like INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) and ARRIVAL (2016) were inspired by CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and continue our fascination with the possibility of alien life. The working title for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was WATCH THE SKIES. I guess all we can do is continue to watch the skies. And wish upon a star that someday we will meet visitors from another planet or galaxy.