Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The poster for this movie tells us that the number describes the closeness of the encounter: first is a sighting, second is evidence, and third is contact. Movies about something as important as our introduction to another species in the universe also have levels. First is when they come down as inexplicably hostile, world-conquering squids. Second is when they’re misunderstood explorers loved intimately by children or housewives. Third is when a film manages the most difficult task of all, to be about the idea of contact. Contact can be a reckoning. Spirits change. Most religions would need a new ending to the human story. All the first contact films that understand this owe their existence to Spielberg and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The best is Arrival, which uses language to examine how contact could change our perspective of the universe and our role in it. Spielberg aims lower perhaps, but higher than could be expected at the dawn of the blockbuster (this was the winter of 1977; in many states, Star Wars was still in theaters). Close Encounters is about no less than human curiosity, our capacity to believe that aliens must represent the best in ourselves, and have the answers we’ve been looking for. Though it was sold on its intricate sets and handcrafted spaceships, it’s most reputable for Richard Dreyfuss, and Spielberg’s fathering of him. The character he creates guides the film to the sweet, inquisitive childishness that makes it last longer in our hearts than our heads. You will remember the delirious swells of emotion, though you won't be able to quote a single line.

I saw it at a rescreening as part of the “Flashback Cinema” series and hadn’t seen it since the family LaserDisc player broke. And you know, I had all these bubbles welling up in my mind containing what the film felt like and sounded like, but I couldn’t remember anything in it. What does it spend two hours and seventeen minutes actually doing?

I understand now why my child brain could only recall moments: they are so poignant and quietly exhilarating that the plot is just the smoke-trail behind them. There’s the genre-defining scene of the little boy getting kidnapped by an electrical storm in a wash of light and sound. There’s Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) letting cars pass him on the road while he checks a map, until one pair of headlights looms in the rearview and then lifts up into the night sky. This is a particular Spielberg touch, to let the audience enjoy a visual gag during a scene that’s stressful to the characters (another example is the jeep in Jurassic Park being chased down by the t-rex, punctuated by the sublime irony of the text in the rearview mirror: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”). Spielberg is more in tune with what he hopes his audience is feeling at the expense of the action than how his characters should feel because of it. Indiana Jones, for instance, will be in dire straits, shot in the arm, dragged behind a truck, and the music will swell adventurously, or Dr. Malcolm will be fearing for his life in the back of the jeep while we chuckle. We’re supposed to be excited, and not share in the embellished injuries or predicament on a literal level.

Close Encounters has some moments like this and more: its entire conflict is based on Spielberg's tactic to turn our reality into a laughing matter. Neary’s wife and kids abandon him because they think he’s crazy and then he abandons the entire planet they’re on because of his ambition to be appreciated for how crazy he really is. But this is never supposed to make us feel afraid for them, or sorry for him: it is a wondrous abandonment, a romanticization of a kid leaving home with a sack of sandwiches and a VHS of Pinocchio that he can’t even play. In the end, we’re not crunching his wife’s childcare expenses or thinking about Neary’s back-taxes: our wonderment is truly the same as his. Close Encounters has the relevance of a masterpiece and the high-thinking script of an epic (a rare Spielberg pen job, with help from several other screenwriters, including Paul Schrader and Matthew Robbins). But its greatest power is that it reduces us to children.

A lot of the film feels like Spielberg is letting off steam over his frustration with family (maybe he was heartbroken during this time?). Close Encounters is devoted to hating family units, portraying Neary’s home as a claustrophobic nightmare of schoolwork and broken toys and unpaid bills and dirty tools and unfinished hobbies. His wife (Teri Garr) is a nag and his children are of a generation without curiosity. He offers them the choice between seeing Pinocchio, a “magic and wonderful time,” and going dumb old mini-golfing. “If kids are still kids, they’re gonna eat it up,” he says. They vote for golf. People used to say there was an age of not believing. Spielberg seems to believe that technology has made it every age.

This film relies on casting. Steve McQueen was at the top of Spielberg’s list to play Neary, and just imagine that: a great-looking dad-guy, steely browed, climbing that mountain like he means it. He turned down the role because he admitted not being able to cry on screen. Dreyfuss pestered Spielberg with pure, zealous want till Spielberg relented. Possibly, he saw the whiny kid he just realized that he needed. I’m sure it was no stretch of the imagination to believe he could get him to cry.

Dreyfuss’ understated whimsy defines Close Encounters, contrasted by the point of view of the government officials piecing together the mystery of the aliens by more traditional science fiction means: signal fragments, map coordinates, crazy interviewees. Neary has a picture in his brain that holds the movie’s secrets. He sees it in shaving cream and mashed potatoes and eventually builds it to scale in his living room, surrounded by shrubbery and broken glass and a mountain of dirt. The image is important, and Neary grasps at it like a child with finger-paints trying to come up with what a feeling might look like. It leads him to the end, the half-hour finale of lights and arpeggios and beautiful models that can only truly be appreciated on the big screen. And as though the cosmos dedicated it to Neary himself, listen closely to John Williams’ moving score for one unmistakable line from Pinocchio.

The spaceships are achieved with such energetic brilliance that seeing them and the sets in production, George Lucas admitted, exhausted from Star Wars, that Spielberg’s film would be the one everyone would remember (they even bet 2.5% of the proceeds from each film, which Spielberg would win handsomely). And what about those ships? Today there would be higher technology at work, more motion and more lights (particularly in compositing, the one area in which I believe we’ve made indisputable progress). But wouldn’t that make us Neary’s kids, little mini technocrats destined for interlinking our depression on crowded Twitter feeds? These effects only work as models, and industry standards Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space OdysseyStar Wars) and Carlo Rambaldi (E.T.Alien) confect some of their most imaginative designs. The frightening aliens are also children, and the ships are floating cities as a child might have built them, set into our imagination with jumbles of spires and real blinking lights (I had the fortune of visiting the National Air and Space Museum as a little boy, and enjoying a much-touted tour around the Enterprise space shuttle by standing in the opposite corner glued to a glass case off to the side, staring at the mothership model from Close Encounters like I built it, or dreamt I did).

As someone who just saw Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and can’t remember what it looked like, I can attest that fancier effects aren’t always more memorable. The slow gravitas of Spielberg’s ships allows for anticipation, something modern effects have trouble generating out of 1s and 0s. The ships that land on Devil’s Peak in Close Encounters are all the ships that a child has ever thought of. The symphonic summit meeting between a keyboard and a spaceship is a fanfare and also an elegy, and the little people inside the blinding light are the children Neary wishes he had, and imagines he used to be. Dr. Lacombe (played by the French director Francois Truffaut) makes a poignant discovery in Close Encounters, that you can want something so hard that the wonderment drains out of it. He envies Neary, who deserves this encounter with his heart and not his math, whose wishes on a star have finally come true, just because he never let them go.

I’ve ironically extended that friendly bet between directors by seeing this film again so closely to the ongoing sequels of that other series. Perhaps Star Wars can learn something from Dr. Lacombe. You can break the enchantment by wanting it too much. Close Encounters can be a sluggish beauty but it has awe you can’t get from action. You don’t even need a close encounter to escape this planet. Watching the film is enough.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg


Roy Neary Richard Dreyfuss
Claude Lacombe François Truffaut
Ronnie Neary Teri Garr
Jillian Guiler Melinda Dillon
David Laughlin Bob Balaban
Project Leader J. Patrick McNamara
Barry Guiler Cary Guffey


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