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Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Yearning for a Place in the Cosmos

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<i>Close Encounters of the Third Kind</i>: Yearning for a Place in the Cosmos

Home / Science Fiction Film Club / Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Yearning for a Place in the Cosmos
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Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Yearning for a Place in the Cosmos

Friendly aliens, adorable moppets, and breathtaking special effects—what's not to love about Spielberg's first big-budget science fiction film?

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Published on April 24, 2024

Credit: Columbia Pictures

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An alien spacecraft hovers over Devil's Tower in a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, and François Truffaut. Screenplay by Steven Spielberg.


Everybody knows that the last few years of the 1970s were a pretty big deal in science fiction cinema. It started in May of 1977 with a little movie called—you may have heard of it—Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind followed in December. The next couple of years brought in some more heavy-hitters, such as Superman and a wildly successful remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, and films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, and even an unexpected box office hit from Australia in the form of Mad Max in 1979.

Sci fi movies had been popular for decades, but the one-two punch of George Lucas’ Star Wars followed by Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was considered a watershed moment in Hollywood even while it was happening. Many contemporaneous reviews of Close Encounters reference Star Wars, always with the assumption that anybody watching Spielberg’s movie had watched Lucas’ film just a few months before. Something was changing in sci fi cinema, and people definitely noticed it while it was happening.

American sci fi movies from before World War II tended to be about monsters and mad scientists, whereas the immediate postwar films were often about politics and paranoia, a trend that continued up until the ’70s. In her book Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, film scholar Vivian Sobchack identifies some genre staples in films released prior to 1977: the emphasis of ideas and deemphasis of characters, an obsession with and fear of technology, the many sociopolitical allegories about what is alien and what is familiar. There were always exceptions, of course, and non-American films had their own trends, but these traits will be familiar to anybody who has spent time watching and reading science fiction—or watching and reading criticism of science fiction, because generalizations like “all idea, no character” are very commonly directed at sci fi whether or not it’s warranted.

But sci fi is always evolving past its own definitions. The breadth of films released in the late ’70s that are now revered as influential and iconic is an example of this, encompassing everything from space opera epics to dystopian miseries, alien invaders to space exploration, out-of-this-world superheroes to claustrophobic horrors.

These days it’s hard to imagine Hollywood without Steven Spielberg’s influence, but in 1977 he was a hotshot newcomer, fresh off the record-breaking success of Jaws (1975). Spielberg had wanted to make a movie about UFOs since he was a kid—in fact, he did make a movie about UFOs when he was a kid. As a seventeen-year-old in Phoenix, Arizona, he made Firelight, a film about scientists investigating strange lights in the sky; the movie was funded by his father (it cost about $500), starred Spielberg’s sister and other high school students, and had a score composed and played by Spielberg on his clarinet. Only a few minutes of Firelight survive, but just over a decade later he would get the chance to revisit the topic with a significantly larger budget.

The wild success of Jaws meant Spielberg had near-complete creative control over Close Encounters, and it became a bit infamous in Hollywood for being a mess of a production. The film ran way over schedule and over budget, and included such wrinkles as the Writers Guild of America reportedly stepping in to arbitrate the writing credit (only Spielberg is credited, but at least five other writers are known to have worked on versions of the script), rumors of the cast bad-mouthing the producers, and filming that ran so late the planned preview press junket had to be delayed because the movie wasn’t finished.

Rushed as it was at the end, Close Encounters became a massive success upon release. But Spielberg wasn’t quite happy with the finished product. So he went back the next year to rework and rerelease it as the Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Twenty years later he would have another go at it in the Director’s Cut, which reverts some changes from the Special Edition—including a change to the ending that had been demanded by the studio but which Spielberg had never liked.

But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s start at the beginning.

We begin in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, where we meet Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut, an icon of French New Wave cinema; we might watch his 1966 Fahrenheit 451 in the future). Lacombe is one of those nebulously scientific guys who travels around the world investigating unexplained phenomena. In this case, the five planes of Flight 19 have appeared in the desert decades after mysteriously vanishing in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945.

Then we go to Indiana, where air traffic controllers hear about a plane’s near-collision with an unidentified aircraft, and locals begin to have a very weird evening. A toddler named Barry (Cary Guffey) wakes up to find his electrical toys going haywire and something ransacking the refrigerator; when he follows the unseen intruder outside, his mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) has to chase him through the fields and forests around their rural home. A power company lineman named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss, who lobbied enthusiastically for the part while filming Jaws with Spielberg) is called to deal with outages across the region, and while he’s on the road he has a very close encounter with a UFO.

Okay. Wait. Please excuse my sidebar, but I have to say this one thing. I don’t write these articles wanting to nitpick movies, because there really isn’t any fun in that. And I genuinely like this movie; I think it’s great fun to watch. But this one detail is driving me crazy. The lights in the sky, the sunburns, the music, the weird electrical and magnetic effects, all of that I can accept without the slightest threat to my suspension of disbelief. The disappearances and reappearances too—no problem. UFOs are UFOing. It’s all good.

But for the life of me I do not have any idea why the aliens climb through Jillian’s dog door to go into her fridge and make a mess of her kitchen. What do they want with her fridge? What are they doing? Why do they climb through the dog door? They can travel between stars but they want to crawl around stealing food? I have so! many! questions!

Don’t worry, I also have a theory: The aliens joyriding across Indiana that night brought an alien dog with them and it accidentally got loose and made a mess of Jillian’s kitchen and befriended Barry. Later the aliens went back later to grab Barry because the alien dog missed him so much.

That’s my theory.

Sidebar over. We can now return to the story.

Following the weirdness in Indiana, we rejoin Lacombe and his ever-present interpreter, David (Bob Balaban, whom you recognize from Christopher Guest and Wes Anderson movies). This time they’re in the Gobi Desert, where the SS Cotopaxi has been found, even though it sunk off the coast of Florida in 1925. (Fun fact: In the real world, the shipwreck of the Cotopaxi was found by divers in the ’80s and officially identified in 2020.) They also travel to India, where crowds of people have heard a musical sequence of five tones from the sky. (Now those five tones are stuck in your head. Sorry.) Lacombe tells government officials that the aliens are trying to communicate, and the U.S. military begins broadcasting the tones from Goldstone to communicate right back.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, things are going poorly. Jillian’s son Barry is abducted from their home following an absolutely terrifying sequence of events. Roy’s deteriorating mental health and obsession with UFOs is testing the patience of his wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), and frightening his children. It culminates in an awful fight—which Dreyfuss and Garr portray so effectively it is physically uncomfortable to watch—after which Ronnie takes the kids and leaves. Both Jillian and Roy are beset with visions of a strange mountain, but because neither of them has ever studied geology or the history of the National Park System, they don’t know that what they’re seeing is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming—not until they see it on the nightly news, thanks to the government’s cover-up story.

The gender politics of this film have not aged well: men get to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, women have to stay home and take care of the kids. I’m not sure how those dynamics were interpreted in 1977 and don’t want to make assumptions, so I’ll just mention it briefly. On the one hand, the Neary home is a noisy, stressful clutter; it’s a claustrophobic space and the scenes are filmed with deliberately overcrowded audio to intensify the discomfort. So one can hardly blame Roy for wanting to escape it into a wondrous cosmic mystery. On the other hand, even before he meets the UFO he’s acting like another child Ronnie has to manage; even his job conveys messages through her rather than speaking directly to him. The family dynamic is one that is common in American media of a certain age—it became inescapable in the ’80s and ’90s especially—and all the more tiresome for it: the playful man-child who desperately wants to escape his boring suburban existence, the humorless wife who keeps trying to make him grow up.

Years later, Spielberg acknowledged the immaturity of Roy’s character. In 2005 he said of Close Encounters: “Now, that was before I had kids. That was 1977. So I wrote that blithely. Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family and going on the mother ship.” So even though that aspect of the story rubs me the wrong way, I have mostly come around to thinking that sometimes a storytelling choice happens when a guy in his late twenties is writing about escaping the suburbs in a UFO, because not that long ago he was a teenager in the suburbs dreaming about escape and UFOs, and he’s just not really thinking very deeply about how it impacts other characters in the story.

Driven by desperation and compulsion, Roy and Jillian both travel to Wyoming, where they meet up again amidst the chaos of a military-enforced evacuation and government cover-up. I laughed out loud when the government agents say they are evacuating 50,000 people from 200 square miles around Devil’s Tower. Fifty thousand! I love when screenwriters who live in Southern California try to estimate population density anywhere else in the country. But never mind that. The military intercepts Roy and Jillian before they can reach Devil’s Tower, but they get away and begin climbing the mountain.

What they find hidden on the far side is a massive operation set up to greet the aliens, compete with a landing strip, a phalanx of white-coated scientists and uniformed soldiers, and a guy on a synthesizer to play the five tones. In the real world that guy was Phil Dodds, an audio engineer and the Vice President of Engineering for ARP Instruments, who was on set to install and program the synthesizer used in the scene. Spielberg liked the way he looked and cast him to play the same role in the film.

This is where we have to acknowledge the work of our old friend Douglas Trumbull and his special effects crew. As the visual effects supervisor, Trumbull developed methods for motion-controlled photography to match the flight of the UFOs—those bright lights that zoom around through most of the film, somehow managing to be both geometric and shapeless—with the miniature photography of the settings and landscapes. Those stunning images of clouds roiling and whirling are the work of Trumbull’s assistant Scott Squires, who created them by devising a method of injecting white paint into tanks of layered fresh- and saltwater. Several parts of the film, including those striking scenes toward the end in which Roy and Jillian are climbing the mountain at dusk, feature matte paintings by Matthew Yuricich (whose work is in everything from Ben Hur to Ghostbusters).

The special effects are great throughout the movie, but there is something about the way they are used that I really love. It’s all about the build-up. I wouldn’t call it restraint, exactly, because this is not a movie that is terribly interested in restraint, but there is a deliberate choice to limit our perspective to make the characters’ experiences more powerful and unsettling. Even though I still want to know what the aliens wanted in Jillian’s refrigerator, that scene is a great example of effectively withholding information. All we see is the mess and little Barry’s face, and he’s too young to convey the precise emotion that an adult character might convey. All we know is that he’s enthralled rather than scared.

Spielberg has talked about how the malfunctioning mechanical sharks used in Jaws made him reduce how much he could show the creature, and he seems to have learned a valuable lesson from the experience: you can convince your audience of a lot if you refrain from showing them so much that it looks fake. So many scenes in Close Encounters work this way, with the same psychological effect: heightening the tension, unsettling the characters, telling us enough that we know what’s going on but not so much that we begin to deconstruct it while watching.

Never quite adding up, that is, until the end. In a story that depends on generating a lot of mystery and expectation around an unseen element, there is always a choice about whether to reveal that element fully. We normally think of this in terms of horror movie monsters and the risk that comes with building up something terrifying, only to have all that terror dissipate when the monster doesn’t live up to the hype. But Close Encounters is doing the exact opposite. There has been tension, fear, and uncertainty building all through the movie; Roy and Jillian, especially, are confused and scared by what’s happening to them. The goal of the ending is to erase that fear entirely and let awe take its place.

That’s a big cinematic challenge, so how do you do it? Well, for one thing, you get Ralph McQuarrie to design and Greg Jein to build a really cool spaceship, and you fill it with color and light and music. The mothership is massive, astonishing, and overwhelming—but it’s not threatening. It’s too bright, too beautiful for that, even before the aliens begin returning the abductees they’ve taken from Earth. They return little Barry into his mother’s arms. They even return a dog! They can’t be threatening aliens if they return a dog, right? The crowd of extraterrestrials that surround Ron before he steps aboard are played by little girls—fifty six-year-olds!—so they are small and cute and humanoid. Outer space has come down to Earth, and it’s friendly, it’s fantastic, and it wants to show a regular guy from Indiana the wonders of the cosmos.

This is where different versions of the film diverge. When Spielberg proposed the 1978 Special Edition, it was Columbia Pictures that asked him to add scenes at the end showing the interior of the mothership. Spielberg preferred to maintain the air of mystery, but he wanted the studio’s money, so he complied. Many critics loved the changes, including Roger Ebert, who raved about the revised film.

But I can see Spielberg’s point about the scenes being unnecessary. It’s enough that Roy is walking into something majestic and unknown; we don’t have to glimpse the entire alien city awaiting him. But I don’t really think those scene detract from the ending either. The interior scenes of the mothership are beautiful, providing a tremendous sense of scale and hinting at a vast society that travels the stars. Maybe it’s just me being wishy-washy, but in truth both endings work for me. Whether or not we peek inside the mothership, the wonder is still there, the cosmos are still waiting, and humanity is still being welcomed into the larger, grander universe.

I want to mention just one more thing, mostly because it makes me laugh but also roll my eyes a little. Close Encounters is a film that has been assessed and reassessed many times over the years; there are a flurry of new reviews and articles at every major anniversary. And some of them (here’s one example) go out of their way to claim that Close Encounters isn’t really a sci fi movie, for all that it’s about UFOs and aliens and first contact. The reasoning is that it doesn’t count because it’s about the humans rather than the aliens.

Now, we’re all familiar with the whole “it can’t be sci fi if I like it” brand of criticism, which is so tired it’s basically a parody of itself. But it’s especially silly in this case, I think, because it misses a rather significant point: every movie about aliens is about humanity.

Alien stories are human stories, right down to their marrow. They are a way for humans to look at ourselves and at each other, a way to explore human hopes and human fears, a way to create allegories of human drudgery and human dreams. Sci fi movies about extraterrestrials are, in general, a genre of film completely obsessed with what it means to be human. That’s why we keeping making them and watching them and talking about them.

What do you think about Close Encounters of the Third Kind? What do you think about showing the inside of the mothership: Yay or nay? I’m sure many of you have noticed that I didn’t mention John Williams’ score, but in my defense I have a really bad reason for that: I don’t actually like it very much (sorry!), so I neglected to look into it. I spent all my time reading about the cool special effects instead. Feel free to share your thoughts on that and anything else below!


This Is Your Mind in the Machine

And now for something completely different! We’ve gone out to space, we’ve brought aliens down to Earth, so next month we’re going to journey into the weird and wild realms of virtual reality. Many thanks to the commenters who suggested a few of the films on this list. This is only a small sampling of what the virtual reality corner of the sci fi genre has to offer.

May 1 eXistenZ (1999), directed by David Cronenberg
It’s possible I had a little chuckle to myself when I decided to follow a Spielberg movie with a Cronenberg movie.
Watch: Kanopy, Pluto, Google, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft, Amazon.
View the trailer here.

May 8 – World on a Wire (German: Welt am Draht) (1973), directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
One of the earliest filmed portrayals of virtual reality comes from this German television miniseries. Plan for a couple of nights, because it’s 204 minutes long.
Watch: The only official sources are DVD/Blu-ray or streaming on the Criterion Channel, but you’re clever people. Check YouTube and the Internet Archive—there are uploads available.
View the trailer here.

May 15 – Open Your Eyes (Spanish: Abre los ojos) (1997), directed by Alejandro Amenábar
This was remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky a few years later, but we’re going to watch the original.
Watch: Amazon, BFI (UK only).
View the trailer here.

May 22 – Tron (1982), directed by Steven Lisberger
According to the director, Tron was not considered for a visual effects Oscar because the Academy thought using a computer for special effects was cheating.
Watch: Disney, Amazon, Apple, Google, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft.
View the trailer here.

May 29 – The Matrix (1999), directed by the Wachowskis
I’m not going to skip it just because we all know and love it. Confession: I saw it in theaters on opening weekend twenty-five years ago but have not watched it since.
Watch: Netflix, Max, Apple, Amazon, Google, Vudu, YouTube, Microsoft.
View the trailer here.

About the Author

Kali Wallace

Author

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults, including the 2022 Philip K. Dick Award winner Dead Space. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Reactor, and other speculative fiction magazines. Find her newsletter at kaliwallace.substack.com.
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