#25 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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 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.
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!
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!
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.”