#550) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
OR “Foo Fighters on Tour”
Directed & Written by Steven Spielberg (with screenplay assistance from several uncredited writers)
Class of 2007
This post about “Close Encounters” is based on my viewing of the Director’s Cut.
The Plot: A series of strange phenomena occur in and around Muncie, Indiana, culminating in a massive power outage. When electrician Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) investigates, he has an encounter with an unidentified flying object. The event makes Roy obsessed with UFOs, driving his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) crazy with his detailed model of a mysterious rock formation. Roy finds sympathy with Gillian (Melinda Dillon), a single mother who believes the UFO abducted her son Barry (Cary Guffey) and sketches the same rock formation as Roy, which turns out to be Devils Tower in Wyoming. Roy and Gillian arrive in Wyoming and meet Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut), a French scientist who believes the reappearance of several wartime vessels may be connected with these UFOs. It all comes together with a spectacular celestial light and sound display that means…something.
Why It Matters: The NFR frames “Close Encounters” as Spielberg’s follow-up to “Jaws“, and calls John Williams’ five-tone motif “as memorable as any line of movie dialogue”. An essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz breaks down the movie’s symbolism.
But Does It Really?: About 15 years ago, I watched “Close Encounters” for the first time, and hated it. Watching it again all these years later, I don’t hate it, but I still can’t get into it. Spielberg is, of course, incapable of making a bad movie, but he has made a few flawed ones, and I count “Close” among them. I enjoyed the film’s scope and “2001“-esque sense of awe, and I appreciate any sci-fi where both the humans and the aliens come in peace, but ultimately I just didn’t care about these characters and their life-changing experience. But hey, any movie that manages to make five notes and mashed potatoes iconic is gonna end up on the NFR regardless of my opinion, and “Close Encounters” has maintained enough of a place in our popular culture to warrant eventual NFR inclusion.
Shout Outs: Several references to “Pinocchio“, including use of “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the score. Also quick references to “The Thing from Another World“, “The Ten Commandments“, “Jaws”, and “Star Wars“.
Everybody Gets One: If this were the French Film Registry, François Truffaut would be well-represented as the director/screenwriter of “The 400 Blows”, “Jules and Jim” and “Day for Night”, to name just a few of his classics. But the father of French New Wave and the Auteur Theory made his sole American film with his performance in “Close Encounters”. Spielberg was surprised when Truffaut accepted an acting role, and Truffaut seemed to enjoy the whole experience and working with Spielberg (though he did have a few choice words for co-producer Julia Phillips).
Title Track: The movie gets its name from astronomer and ufologist J. Allen Hynek’s book “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry“. For those who didn’t read the poster, a close encounter of the first kind is a UFO sighting, the second kind is physical evidence, and the third kind is contact.
Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial hit, “Close Encounters” received eight Oscar nominations, including Spielberg’s first Best Director nod. The film lost in most of its categories to “Star Wars”, but Vilmos Zsigmond won his only Oscar for Best Cinematography, while Frank Warner won a Special Oscar for his sound effects editing.
- It’s interesting to watch “Close Encounters” as a follow-up/companion piece to “Jaws”: they both have that ’70s mellowness to them, and give only brief glimpses of the “other” before the big third act reveal. And, true to his word, Spielberg’s next movie does not take place anywhere near a large body of water.
- Kudos to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who balances out his expert landscape compositions with some wonderful blocking that enhances the dialogue scenes. “Every Frame a Painting” did a whole video on Spielberg’s under-appreciated single take scenes.
- Speaking of great shots, this movie is filled to brim with Spielberg’s trademark “Zoom in as someone looks meaningfully off-camera” shots. There’s your drinking game.
- John Williams wrote 300 variations of the UFO’s five-tone phrase before Spielberg picked the one used in the movie. Williams lost the Oscar to himself for “Star Wars” but did win two Grammys for “Close Encounters”.
- So here’s why “Close Encounters” doesn’t work for me: I never buy into the obsession Roy and Jillian have for these aliens. It’s perfectly fine to not spell everything out for me, but I never understood why Roy would abandon his family. At least Jillian is motivated to find her son, but even that seems secondary to her fascination with Devils Tower. I didn’t get to know these characters well enough before their encounter to empathize, nor does the movie ever stop and tell us what is motivating their behavior. You don’t have to explain everything, just give me a scene where they’re singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home” and sharing war stories.
- The farmer with the “Stop and be friendly” sign is Roberts Blossom, best known to my generation as Old Man Marley from “Home Alone”.
- What a waste of Teri Garr. Of course she’s always best in a good comic role, but Garr’s dramatic work is lost here as the shrill wife who doesn’t support her husband. Maybe her best scenes got cut?
- If nothing else, “Close Encounters” showed us that Spielberg could handle a budget. “Close” had twice the budget of “Jaws”, and it’s all in service to Spielberg’s vision, and not just a pile of money thrown at the screen. It’s a delicate balance very few promising young filmmakers can manage.
- I love mashed potatoes, so watching a whole scene where Roy sculpts Devils Tower out of a giant dollop of them just gave me some serious cravings. Heck I’m salivating as I’m typing this.
- The other thing that bothers me about “Close Encounters”: No one’s having any fun. It’s all taken so seriously. The only character enjoying himself is Barry, but his naive innocence is cancelled out by my concerns of child endangerment (a common Spielberg trope before he had kids).
- And then we get to the finale at Devils Tower which is…what, a laser show? Maybe I need to see this on a big screen. I’ll say this much: once the mothership starts communicating, the real hero is the keyboardist who keeps up with the inhumanly fast tempo. This is why we need to keep funding arts programs in schools!
- And then the creepy alien children in rubber suits take Richard Dreyfuss away as everyone stares off-camera in amazement. Can I just chalk up this whole movie to “The ’70s” and shrug my shoulders?
- “Close Encounters” was a massive hit, and talks of a sequel began immediately. The somewhat darker “Night Skies” never made it past the script stage, but elements of the screenplay were utilized in future Spielberg projects “E.T.” and “Poltergeist”.
- In 1980, “Close Encounters” was re-released as a Special Edition, which trimmed a few existing scenes and added several newly filmed ones, including a few much-buzzed-about shots that show us the inside of the mothership. In 1998, Spielberg revisited the film one more time, reinstating some of the deleted material, and removing the spaceship’s interior to give us his Director’s Cut. While the Director’s Cut is the most common release, all three versions are available on Blu-ray.
- Most references to “Close Encounters” today are limited to the title and the fact that there are aliens, with the occasional homage to the mashed potatoes scene. Other than that, “Close Encounters” has been more or less eclipsed by the pantheon of great movies Spielberg has given us since 1977.
Listen to This: A few months before “Close Encounters” hit theaters, NASA sent out Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 for its own close encounters out in space. Included was a vinyl record containing a variety of audio for aliens to learn about Earth, including greetings in different languages and music from across the centuries. The Voyager record – sometimes referred to as “Murmurs of the Earth – was added to the National Recording Registry in 2007. The NRR write-up includes an essay by Cary O’Dell.