Retro review–Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the big screen again and as epic as ever

Review by C.J. Bunce

For me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the film that got away.  I was lucky to have been taken to every great sci-fi classic and Spielberg film from Jaws forward, but multiple Star Wars viewings probably nudged out my chance to see this one back in 1977.  Close Encounters didn’t arrive in theaters until the Christmas season that year and it would likely have generated some nightmares as I was only about a year older than the boy co-star of the film–so it was probably a good thing.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind is back in theaters this week to celebrate its 40th anniversary.  Watching it for the first time on the big screen was like filling in a last brick in the wall.  It’s a satisfying re-watch, and every time you screen a classic in the theater again you learn something new.  The film is being preceded this week by a behind-the-scenes featurette, including an interview with Steven Spielberg and excerpts from the home movies he routinely films as he directs his movies.  It also contains a clip of each iconic scene in the film, so those who haven’t seen the film and want to view it for the first time may want to duck out for popcorn during the previews.  Close Encounters is screening only for a few more days, so no matter how many times you have seen it, it’s time to go back again.  Nothing beats a classic, especially a Spielberg film, on the big screen.

You might find Close Encounters’ pacing to stand out as a bit slow.  Movies today need to be action-packed to grab viewers.  The elements the viewer needs to know are laid out methodically, and yet the film is not told in normal storytelling fashion.  Richard Dreyfuss’s innocent everyman Roy Neary is not your normal protagonist.  Every bit the victim here, he also may be more like a lottery winner, selected to do what many dream of.  He asks for none of the personal invasion he encounters–ripped from his family and job, this uncontrollable compulsion arrives, pursuing him with only a realization that whatever this vision is about it’s somehow important.  From the film’s abrupt start it feels very avant-garde, a bit like modern independent filmmaking, with its back and forth explanation of a communication project in progress spliced with a utility worker who experiences a strange event.  Sequences of real world end-to-end conversations that other directors might have edited to more quickly get to the point also illustrate unusual directing decisions.  Only in what doubles as a horror movie sequence–basically a child abduction–do we get a clear realization of aliens as one possible antagonist of the film.  And when the movie really kicks in at Devil’s Tower the audience can see the international marriage of scientists and military is possibly another villain.  Or is there a villain at all?  Many scenes suggest dissonance itself is the culprit–all the barriers to clear communication that get in the way–the ongoing, pounding barrage of multiple interpreters in a single conversation, air traffic control operators speaking at once, Neary’s wife played by Teri Garr and her kids all talking or screaming or beating toys to pieces, Roy’s co-workers on the radio all speaking at once, a room full of scientists babbling at each other as they try to interpret these six repeated numbers beings sent to them from outer space, aliens playing rapid tones against humans doing the same.  And the sound of all the toys turning on at once, the toys of little Barry (Cary Guffey) that wake up his mom Jillian, played by Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon, forcing her to join the story as a victim along with Roy.  Then the resolution of conflict only arrives as the aliens and humans finally reach clarity with the tonal communication between them in the film’s climactic encounter.  In the preview to the film, Spielberg mentions Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket’s crooning “when you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are” as his inspiration–what the film is all about.  That familiar Disney motif is certainly present thanks to John Williams’ beautiful score.  Maybe Roy is his own enemy–unable to break away from the influence of these beings?  Or by following this calling does he rescue himself from a family that doesn’t understand or listen to him, and a mundane job and neighborhood of zombie-like suburbanites who always seem to be watching him?

Whatever the through line of the story is intended to be, the film is sweeping and enormous in scope, addressing subjects everyone can get sucked into: telepathy, conspiracy theories, all the UFO theories (from cattle mutilations to Area 51 to alien abductions and flying saucers), and unexplained phenomena (from missing people to the curious fascination of aliens with rummaging through refrigerators).  It’s all there in this suspenseful package, all from this brilliant young filmmaker who said he and his cast just couldn’t wait to show everyone this great thing they had created.  Hints at so many films are contained here that you could wonder if Spielberg starts generating every subsequent project idea by first watching Close Encounters:  We see the young child’s parents terrified in their home by some strange force in Poltergeist as Jillian tries to prevent the aliens from breaking into her home.  We see the quiet standing crowd at night waiting at the foot of Devil’s Tower for something good or bad to happen filmed similar to the soldiers waiting as the Ark is opened at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And it’s almost a surprise to realize the mother ship at the end of Close Encounters is not the ship from E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, another giant, flying, lit-up Christmas tree-house transporting that curious little botanist who would arrive only five years later.

As much as Dreyfuss, Dillon, and Garr are standouts, Spielberg’s selection of French director François Truffaut in one of his few acting performances as the head of the communication project is a thing of genius.  Truffaut conveys so much authority and emotion, you can’t help but love his character Lacombe, even when he is attempting to mislead Roy.  Understated performances come from Bob Balaban as the cartographer turned translator on the team, J. Patrick McNamara as the first contact project lead who partners with Lacombe throughout the film, the ubiquitous Warren Kemmerling as the head military officer in command, the quirky Roberts Blossom as the yokel believer who claims to have also seen Bigfoot, and the looming Merrill Connally as the team leader who is first to step forward to greet the aliens.  And we see our first glimpses at later genre regulars Carl Weathers (Rocky, Predator), Josef Sommer (The Stepford Wives, D.A.R.Y.L., The Sum of All Fears, X-Men: The Last Stand) and Lance Henriksen (Alien, The Terminator, The X-Files).

Like most good films, Close Encounters reflects something of its time.  Everyone knew someone who thought they had seen an unidentified flying object back in the 1970s.  When I worked for a major U.S. newspaper in the 1980s, after hours I would catch up reading the old UFO file–every news report published back to the 1950s–and the file was huge.  During this week’s anniversary screening I was reminded I was first taught the Zoltán Kodaly method of translating music into sign language in 1977 as part of my first grade music class curriculum.  The Kodaly method was just taking hold among music educators when Close Encounters was being filmed, and it’s featured prominently in the film.  Just as we watch Stranger Things today to pick out what set elements were plucked from our past, the nostalgia in us can’t help but search the background of each scene–far easier with the giant screen–for those objects we once had in our homes (That battery powered police car!  The bunk bed!  That pick-up truck!  Those baseball jerseys!  That Corningware bowl!  That lamp!).

Forty years later and Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still celebrated, and rightly so.  Fresh off the success of Jaws, Spielberg reunited John Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, production designer Joe Alves and more, including effects experts who had also worked on Star Wars that year, like Dennis Muren and Don Trumbull, and so many that would go on to create the look of the future science fiction films like Blade Runner and the Star Trek films a few years later, including Greg Jein, Doug Trumbull, Larry Albright, and Dave Stewart.  A science fiction film nominated for eight Academy Awards that actually deserved it, taking home the awards for sound effects editing (Frank A. Warner) and cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond).  You could hardly find a better science fiction classic worthy of a retrospective screening, and one forty years or older that does not feel dated.

For those who can’t get to the theater, check out the new home editions coming later this month.  You can pre-order these at a discount off the release price, including the deluxe 40th anniversary boxed set of the film here at Amazon, the 4k/Blu-ray/Digital bundle here, and the Blu-ray and Digital combo here, all available September 19, 2017.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind is in theaters nationally through September 7.





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