Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 45

8 min read
Close Encounters of the Third Kind

at 45 – Are we alone in the universe? It is a question that has sparked the imagination of scientists, artists – heck, any human being – for hundreds of years.  It is one of the greatest mysteries of human existence, with many stories exploring both benevolent and malevolent encounters with extra-terrestrial beings. One of the most popular of all time of course is Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the 1982 smash-hit that depicted an alien encounter through the eyes of a child desperate for a friend.

But before we met the little long-necked fella, Spielberg lay down the Reese's Pieces towards E.T. in his other alien meet-and-greet classic; 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For many Spielberg fans, it stands as one of his defining classics alongside his 1982 hit and the likes of Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws. Even E.T. began life as a proposed sequel to it. Released just two years after the success of Jaws, Close Encounters solidified Spielberg's status as the hot new kid on the Hollywood block, earning over $288 million at the box office off a budget of $19 million. 

The film tells the story of individuals who come into contact with UFOs and find their lives irrevocably changed by the experience, as they become drawn to the other-worldly visitors and a certain meeting point at Devils Tower, Wyoming. We mainly follow everyday family man and blue collar worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus), whose experience with strange lights in the sky begins to erode his ties to his family.

In the 45 years since its release, Spielberg's tale that mixes both a fascination with UFO culture and the personal experience of growing up in a broken family has been re-released in two formats. There was the ‘Special Edition' in 1979, which somewhat pointlessly reveals the inside of the Mothership, and 1998's definitive ‘Director's Cut', Spielberg's (and this writer's) preferred version. 

This legacy of tampering, while not quite on a Blade Runner scale, does speak to Spielberg's connection to the material, and the personal ties felt within it. Just looking at the credits, this is one of the very rare solo writing ventures Spielberg has across his whole career. While many uncredited writers helped brush up the final product (including the likes of Paul Schrader, Matthew Robbins and David Gilner), the resulting film undeniably feels like one of Spielberg's most intimate blockbusters, and one of his purest demonstrations of using an extraordinary situation as a backdrop to explore something more personally felt, the breakdown of the family. 

That it should be one of Spielberg's most personal films should come as no surprise when you dig deeper into its origins. Much of Close Encounters is lifted directly from one of his earliest films, Firelight, which he made when he was 17. The teenaged Spielberg's 135 minute science-fiction adventure follows a group of scientists chasing lights in the sky, and likewise features subplots of a crumbling marriage and a child abduction. Firelight has only ever been screened once in Spielberg's home town of Phoenix, Arizona back in 1964. 

Reportedly, moments from Close Encounters are almost shot-for-shot recreations of alien encounters in Firelight. Alas, only three minutes of the film are available online, as the original reels for the film have been lost for over 50 years. As the story goes, when Spielberg was first job hunting in Los Angeles in the 60s, he lent his only copies of the master reels of the film to a producer, in order to showcase his abilities. However, just one week later, the production company in question went bankrupt, and the producer vanished, along with Spielberg's reels. To this day, the missing reels have not been found. 

Whether taken up by aliens or sitting in a salt mine somewhere waiting to be uncocvered, Firelights only goes to demonstrate how deep the idea of extra-terrestriaal life runs in Spielberg's DNA. Close Encounters' initial appeal is as a film which explores the fascination with UFO culture, both its allure and the existential fear that accompanies knowing the truth about life elsewhere in the universe. Much of the allure is expressed through that sense of wonder and awe that Spielberg is so known for, with crowds of strangers brought together to catch a glimpse of those lights in the sky, with the expression often one of unbridled joy or a profound contentedness. 

The fear, however, is expressd in quite a primal form, particularly in the moment in which Melinda Dillon's Jillian must bare witness to her young son Barry being taken by an ominous and downright sinister orange light out on their isolated farm one evening. Spielberg's use of light to invoke fear, to subvert the notion that horrors can only occur in the dark, is at its most startling here, with the silhouette of Barry in the doorway bathed in the threatening orange glow of the unseen UFO standing as one of the defining images of Spielberg's career, with the sequence itself as tense and as horrifying as anything he has ever done in the thriller-mould.

The mystery surrounding the extra-terrestrial visitors in Close Encounters speaks to Spielberg's fascination with UFO culture, government conspiracies and all. It has a tip of the hat to many UFO phenomena from across history, from World War Two fighter pilots who disappeared without a trace, to music and lights touching cultures across the globe from a seemingly other-wordly source. From the more grounded moments of air traffic controllers perplexed as to the exact nature of a dot on a radar, to witnesses in Dharamsala, India hearing the now famous five-tone musical phrase, the film makes a point that this is a global event  significant to the whole human race, despite the fact the heart of the story follows a blue-collar worker in Indiana.

Richard Dreyfuss' Roy and his decision to leave his family to follow what he pereceives to be a higher calling is a fragment of Close Encounters that has only become more intriguing the older one gets. Spielberg himself has gone on to say that if he had made Close Encounters after becoming a father, then he never would have concluded the film with Roy leaving with the aliens. The fact that he does makes him a more flawed character, and one who I only question more each time I come back to the film. 

The one scene in particular that becomes increasingly harder to sit through with dry eyes as the years pass is the dinner table scene between Roy and his family, after he has lost his job and is being driven mad by visions of a shape that he can't make sense of. As he begins to pile his plate with mash potatoes to recreate the image of Devils Tower in his mind, his wife looks on in concern, and his children look on in confusion, while his eldest is overcome by tears, much more aware that their Dad is not the fun playmate he used to be just days ago. In that split diopter shot, with Roy to the right of the frame and his son to the left, the overwhelming feeling is one of crushing inevitability that something is fundamentally broken in the family and will never be the same again.

The change to the Neary family is cemented in the final moments when Roy makes the decision to go up in the spaceship. In a sequence where it is easy to be swept up in the spectacle – from John Williams' magnificent score to the late great Douglas Trumbull's incredible effects and miniatures –  the ‘happy ending' has only become more tinged in melancholy and sadness when you factor in the weight of Roy's decision for his family, leaving his young children without a father. 

Having begun life as a direct sequel to Close Encounters, you can very much still feel the spirit of Close Encounters in E.T., particularly when it comes to addressing notions of awe, horror and family. In E.T., Elliott and his siblings come fo forge a friendship and then have to say goodbye to a friend, with the alien critter acting as a vessel for them to work through their own sense of abandonment following their father leaving home. It is not difficult to see Elliott, his siblings and his mother as the fragments left behind of the Neary family. In the final moments of E.T., they are able to address their abandonment issues by saying goodbye to the friend they have made, a goodbye they never got from their father, and the goodbye that Roy never gave to his own kids. 

The idea of communication is baked into the DNA of Close Encounters, and while Roy may abandon his family and leave them without a sense of closure, there is something very poetic about the means communication used between the human race and the alien visitors when it comes to Spielberg addressing his own broken family. It is likely not a coincidence that the aliens and humans communicate through musical notes and computers. Spielberg's father was a computer engineer, while his mother was a keen pianist and music teacher. The melding of the two worlds here as a means of communicating and finding harmony can be read as an expression from within Spielberg that goes right back to his childhood – a desire to see his parents find a means of striking a chord, to communicate and come together. A bittersweet metaphor, particularly when paired with the fractured family that is left off screen.

I first saw Close Encounters when I was eight years old. We had made a den in my older cousin's bedroom, drew the curtains and made the room as ‘cinema-esque' as possible. We popped my newly gifted  VHS of the director's cut into the video player (a purple 14” Bush TV/VHS combo machine that I used to think was the coolest invention of all time). I was instantly transported, frightened and awed by the mystery and the scale of the film, particularly when it came to those final moments behind Devils Tower. The final act has always remained one of the finest sequences Spielberg has ever committed to screen for me, but the manner in which I see the film as a whole has dramatically changed over time. 

It is harder not to be more and more affected by the disintegration of the family at its core as each year passes by, making Close Encounters one of Spielberg's more subtly tragic tales. While there is something ultimately gained and spiritually uplifting surrounding the achievement of communication with the benevolent aliens, there is no denying the streak of tragedy that runs underneath it when one considers what Roy has chosen to give up and abandon in the film's final moments. 

That is the mark of a true timeless classic, when a film can radically change, morph and transform with you as you gain more life experience and view it with more mature eyes. It will always have the wonder and awe conjured from its startling imagery  as it puts to screen one of the most impressive motherships in Sci-Fi movie history. But what comes more and more apparent with Close Encounters of the Third Kind with each passing year is the pain at the core of it, which stems from Spielberg's own broken childhood home.  It is a profoundly human tale of connection that uses the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe to drive home the importance of what it is we have around us, which makes Roy's decision at the end all the more heartbreaking. 

Photo: Copyright © 1977, renewed 2005 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.