Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cinema Bestius: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

“This means something. This is important.”

#25 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
What can your Pope say about a film that perfectly conveys the awe and wonder of living on this planet? No less an authority than Ray Bradbury once called Close Encounters of the Third Kind “the best science-fiction film ever made.”

Sometimes I think Close Encounters gets short shrift because Steven Spielberg has made too many great movies. When movie talk turns to Sci-Fi (which Harlan Ellison famously pronounces “skiffy”), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial usually dominates the conversation. Action-Adventure fans turn toward Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. Fans of thrillers hold Munich and Bridge of Spies close to their hearts. Film buffs looking for probing drama need only turn to Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Amistad, or Lincoln. Spielberg’s Jaws is one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Close Encounters, though nominally a science-fiction film, combines pieces of all of these genres into a unique whole. It is at once chase film, domestic drama, thoughtful rumination on our place in the universe, alien invasion film, horror movie, and sly comedy. If you question the assertion that Close Encounters contains horror elements, look at Spielberg’s masterful use of lighting, editing, and sound effects in the scene where little Barry is abducted. The sheer ambition behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind puts many modern movies to shame.
The Plot In Brief: All over the world, groups of people report seeing bright lights and strange objects in the desert and hearing a haunting, five note tune. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), the lead scientist in the investigation, talks to witnesses with the help of interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban). One night while responding to a call, telephone lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) witnesses something that he cannot get out of his mind. Neary begins to draw an odd shape over and over again, eventually creating it in his shaving cream, his mashed potatoes, and dirt from his front lawn. His obsessive behavior eventually drives away his family, and leads him on a quest to seek out the source of his visions and find other people who share his experience.

The new BFI monograph on Chaplin’s The Gold Rush focuses on the different existing versions of that film, because Chaplin prepared a sound version in 1942 that replaced some footage and removed the title cards and added his fulsome narration… and then he failed to renew the copyright on his 1925 original, thus making it the stuff of public-domain-eyesore videotapes and discs. Just as I was thinking while reading the book, “Thank God we have no problem discerning the OFFICIAL VERSION for scholarship purposes regarding more modern films”, I instantly realized that many modern films—Welles’s Touch of Evil, Close Encounters, and Blade Runner, to name but a few—share the same problem of provenance.
When it comes to Close Encounters, I have always preferred the original version. Spielberg himself has said that the Special Edition, featuring scenes of Neary entering the alien mother ship, was a mistake. (Columbia Pictures dictated the need for those new scenes; the studio wanted a “hook” on which to hang the rerelease advertising campaign.) Besides adding footage to the Special Edition, Spielberg shortened other scenes, specifically the sequence where Neary runs amok, drives away his family, and re-landscapes his home’s interior.

Many years ago, I was in charge of an annual “Film Day” event in my school district. Film Day is a daylong celebration of the movies, attended by hundreds of the district’s film students (if your school district doesn’t already have a Film Day, write your congressman.) The theme for the day was “Sci-Fi.” In those days, if I wanted to screen a film I had to rent it on good old 16mm; this would have been 1988 or ’89, and by then Spielberg’s “Special Edition” had all but replaced his original cut for reparatory screenings and 16mm rentals. I was so overjoyed when the rental company sent me a pristine copy of the original version, which I always preferred. I prefaced the screening by telling all the kiddies in attendance just why they were in for a special treat!
Richard Dreyfuss gives the performance of his career in this film, and I am a big fan of Richard Dreyfuss. In Close Encounters, he is by turns everyman, best dad, worst dad, husband, dreamer, telephone lineman, visionary, exasperating, inspiring, really scary, really heroic, really sarcastic, and properly awed. He is one of the best audience surrogates in the history of the movies. We never question Neary’s passion, vision, or zeal. Dreyfuss’ line readings are all refreshingly off-kilter. My favorite is near the end of the film when, shown a drawing of Devil’s Tower by the authorities, he dismisses it with the aside, “Yeah, I’ve got one just like it in my living room.”

I am also an unapologetic fan of practical effects, and Close Encounters is a textbook of what can be accomplished with miniatures, forced perspective, stop-motion animation, matte paintings, smoke, mirrors, editing, music, and performance. Good Lord—one of the best special effects in the film is the truckload of dirt in front of Neary’s TV. When Douglas Trumbull started the project, he joked that the film’s $3.7 million special effects budgets could be used instead to make a whole other film. Columbia’s original budget for Close Encounters was $7 million; the final cost was closer to $20 million—and them’s 1977 dollars!
A child’s sense of awe lights the heart of this film. What a breath of fresh air in our current political climate of gloom, doom, and fear. Maybe, just maybe, the film supposes, there is something coming from far away… and it is wonderful. At the same time I believe the film avoids simple Pollyanna-ish naïveté; there are bitter truths here too. Sometimes, the film whispers, no matter how painful, we must remove those people from our lives who do not believe in us.

Close Encounter of the Third Kind’s Three Miracles: An American science-fiction film that takes its own themes seriously, is neither jokey nor crass, and respects its own audience’s intelligence; special effects that both awe and delight; and another in a series of iconic scores by John Williams—five simple notes that have become synonymous with the film itself.

“In nomine Dreyfuss, et Truffaut, y spiritu Spielberg, Amen.”


  1. Interesting follow-up to Pinocchio from a few weeks ago. Actually, I think the Special Edition’s underwhelming ending had turned me off of Pinocchio for years. Close Encounters always had a precarious ending, with the conflict coming to a halt for a 30 minute light show. But Douglas Trumbull’s effects photography of Greg Jein’s models was so perfect that it actually worked.
    Digital effects have come a long way. And I tend to give them a pass at this point as long as they are good enough to be coherent. But I don’t think they ever produce the same awe, that real photography of physical models can generate. Close Encounters is not a film that could be made today because it would not be able to stick the landing.

  2. in the podcast, sombody once said E.T. was the best spielberg movie. while it very a very, very good movie, i say Close Encounter is the best spielberg movie.

  3. Thanks for this column! This will always be one my favorite movies, and I'll watch it whenever it's on. I think you're exactly right that Neary is one of the best audience surrogates ever; he's smart, funny, empathetic, and just plain human and it's a joy to follow him through the film. And I always thought it was interesting that Spielberg would follow up Jaws with a film about a man ultimately being rewarded for pursuing a vision (in this case, a literal vision) through an endless series of obstacles.

  4. For me, my favorite Spielberg movie is generally a rotation between E.T., Jaws, and Close Encounters. For Spielberg's best movie, though, I have absolutely no idea. I think this movie might have some (not all, but some) of my favorite practical effects.

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  6. Weird, I randomly put this on this week end and watch it a few times. Cool!

  7. I also feel the child's sense of Awe, it is that magic and wonder done very sincerely and believing in the existence of other beings in this galaxy, when a movie like this is made from the heart its hard for me to not enjoy it

  8. Close Encounters is a brilliant film. Spielberg found a way to tell a compelling story about revelation and faith by wrapping it in a science-fiction package. When I was a kid, the middle section was a chore you had to get through before "the good stuff" in the finale. Now as an adult, the middle section (where Roy is struggling with his visions and what they might mean) is to me the heart and soul of the film.

  9. Then there's E.T., which to me is an unofficial sequel to Close Encounters. Note how Elliot's family has the same composition as Roy's family - two older brothers, a younger sister, and an absent father. I think Spielberg used E.T. as a way for our alien friends to make amends to the family that lay broken at the end of Close Encounters.

  10. Great post...I need to give this film a revisit! It's been decades since I've seen it :O