Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Spielberg’s Masterpiece

Made with an inspiring awe and meticulous attention to detail, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Spielberg’s Oscar-winning, critically acclaimed sci-fi, is one of the most spectacular movies he has made, on par with the 1975 “Jaws” and the 1982 “E.T.”

In its best moments, such as the magical conclusion, the movie approximates a meticulously choreographed magical spectacle of dazzling lights and sounds.

When the saga begins, electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an ordinary suburban resident, is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky.

At first intrigued, Roy is subsequently haunted by a mountain-like image. Gradually, he becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, much to the dismay of his family, particularly his wife (Teri Garr), who can’t understand his obsession.

Meanwhile, government agents around the world have close encounters of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of extraterrestrial visitors in the form of lost fighter aircraft from World War II and a stranded military ship that disappeared decades earlier, only to suddenly reappear in the Sonora and Gobi Desert.

Joining hands, Roy and the agents then follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.

Dramatic suspense occurs when Dillon’s young son (Cary Guffey) is kidnapped by UFO, and an electric company worker, Richard Dreyfuss, encounters one when he goes to check a strange power outage. Both subsequently find themselves mysteriously drawn to the Devils Tower, a huge extinct volcano in Wyoming, where humankind has its own first meeting with extra-terretstrial life.

Rich in text and subtext, it’s a tale of suburban malaise and middle-class stagnation, it features characters that need an escape from social stagnation. They are waiting for an awakening, even miraculous salvation that can come only from the outside.

Spielberg, ever the optimist, suggests that our problems can be solved, that our questions will be answered, that our emptiness will be filled–if only we can open our hears and minds to new experiences.

This becomes evident at the end of the film, when Major Walton says: “It isn’t science,” and Lacombe reaffirms that sentiment by claiming: “It is an event sociologique.”  Thus, Close Encounters is ultimately a film about a sociological rather than scientific issue and resolution.

Perhaps Spielberg’s greatest achievement is to make a warm, likable sci-fi feature, deviating in spirit, tone, and ideology from the dark, noirish sci-fi films that dominated the 1950s and Cold War mentality.

This trend would continue with his next sci-fi films, “E.T.” in 1982.

The film’s stellar cast includes Dreyfuss (Spielberg’s alter-ego) in one of his best performances, given in the same year in which he won the Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl (a minor film).

Equally good are Melinda Dillon as the distraught mother, Teri Garr as Dreyfuss hopelessly uncomprehending wife, and the famed and beloved director Francois Truffaut, who plays a French scientist-UFOlogist, Claude Lacombe.

Visually distinguished, the film’s look and special effects were overseen by Douglas Trumbull, the F/X maestro of Kubrick’s 1968 classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who later became a director, departing from the cool effects of Industrial Light and Magic film projects.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was written and directed by Spielberg and produced by Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips, who a year earlier had produced Scorsese’s masterpiece, “Taxi Driver.”

Spielberg’s first film after “Jaws,” which made him the “hottest,” most commercial filmmaker in Hollywood, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was nominated for eight Oscars:

Director: Steven Spielberg Supporting Actress: Melinda Dillon Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond Art Direction-Set Decoration: Joe Alves and Don Lomino; Phil Abramson Visual Effects: Roy Arbogast, Douglas Trumbull, Matthew Yuricich, Gregory Jein, and Richard Yuricich Film Editing: Michael Kahn Original Score: John Williams Sound: Robert Knudson, Robert J. Glass, Don MavDougall, and Gene S. Cantamessa

Oscar Context

Nominated for 8 Oscars, the film won one legit award, Cinematography to Vilmos Zsigmond (who had shot Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, “The Sugarland Express,” 1974), and one Special Award for sound effects editing, which did not exist then as a separate category, to Frank E. Warner

Spielberg received Directing Oscar nomination, but the film, which was released the same year as George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” was not. That year’s big blockbuster was “Star Wars,” though, artistically speaking, “Close Encounters” has held up better in the long run.

In 1977, the Best Picture Oscar went to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” which also won Best Director.

Composer John Williams, winning for “Star Wars,” lost to himself, so to speak.

Cast

Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary)

Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary)

Melina Dillon (Jillian Guiler)

Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler)

Bob Balaban (Interpreter Laughlin)

J. Patrick McNamara (Project Leader)

Warren Kemmerling (Wild Bill)

Roberts Blossom (Framer)

Francois Truffaut (Claude Lacombe)

Jean Claude (Philip Dodds)

Running time: Various Versions

135 minutes for the Original Version; 132 minutes for the Special Edition; 137 minutes for the Collector’s Edition.

Release date: Nov 17, 1977