Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
(for action sequences, some disturbing images, and language)
Released: December 25, 1977
Runtime: 135 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, Lance Henriksen
Steven Spielberg has called E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List his most personal films. I’d call Close Encounters Of The Third Kind his most spiritual.
The truest (if also subjective) test for a story’s spiritual merits, or how one would define any experience as spiritual — movies or otherwise — is how closely it mirrors their own. More on how that applies to me here in a bit.
Directing his own original screenplay (which was also his first), Spielberg makes a staggering leap in scale and scope but also thematic ambition. There is considerable growth on display here, both as a filmmaker and (perhaps especially) as a storyteller.
If Jaws showcased a total command of craft, Close Encounters revealed an artistry – not just visual, but soulful. It’s amazing that Spielberg could express such a profound universal longing while still in his late 20s, to a degree I couldn’t fully begin to articulate until my early 40s.
Following a brief encounter with an alien spacecraft, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) wrestles with his place in the universe. He’s a proxy for Spielberg, who seems to have been wrestling with his own.
Neary’s angst is most certainly Spielberg’s, and the wunderkind gave voice to it through this parable of alien contact. These close encounters escalate from the local to the global and to the galactic. In them, it’s not simply life from other planets that’s discovered; it’s purpose and meaning.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a story of existential crisis. Roy, and a select few others like him from around the world, feels a stronger connection (or perhaps even a calling) to an unknown “out there” than to anything known here. You could even say it’s a calling.
It’s a belief, a faith – a complicated, frustrating faith – that is defined more by mystery than certainty. It’s a mystery so unfathomable, and in some ways so abstract and beyond ourselves, that it induces as much anxiety as hope.
But it’s also the only thing that can really be trusted, even as others start to wonder what’s wrong with you, and think you might even be going a little crazy.
That sentiment is best expressed in the film’s most poignant exchange (from a movie filled with them) between an earnest scientist that’s trying to help Roy and others like him (are they the aliens’ first disciples, perhaps?) who are drawn to a specific location by metaphysical compulsion:
CLAUDE LACOMBE: What did you expect to find?
ROY NEARY: An answer. That’s not crazy, is it?
And here’s where the film gets really personal for me.
For most of my life, my Christian faith was the same way. It was an existential Christianity. On a more recent viewing of Close Encounters, about five years ago or so, I saw my whole adult spiritual journey essentially laid out in front of me, in parable.
It was a journey that began in a faith, made sense and provided hope. It even had answers…but also a few holes. Holes that shouldn’t have been there but were. It didn’t add up like people kept telling me that it was supposed to – not only for me but, perhaps in some cases, not even for them.
Like Roy, I kept feeling drawn to something I couldn’t define, or even find. But I couldn’t stop looking. That wasn’t even a choice.
Then I found Eastern Orthodoxy, and my Christianity was no longer existential. The Orthodox Christian Church was, to put a fine point on it, my Mothership.
Forgive me, I digress. But I do so to stress just how much Close Encounters resonates, and that it is uniquely “of a kind.” Most astonishingly, it came from the singular soul (both as writer and director) of a very young filmmaker.
And yet for as deep as all of this goes, it’s a far cry from cryptic, ponderous musings of philosophical pretense. This is not Terrence Malick sci-fi.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is, in modern terms, the quintessential J.J. Abrams “Mystery Box”, perhaps better than it’s ever been done before or since, unraveling an epic mystery right from its opening scene, and as much by its characters and their yearnings as it does through a perfectly constructed plot machine.
Along the way it raises more questions than it answers, yet it still provides a resolution that is both narratively and intuitively satisfying.
And then there’s the spectacle.
For as well-shot and made as Jaws was, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond – working with Spielberg a second time, following The Sugarland Express – elevates Steven’s instincts considerably. Zsigmond paints Spielberg’s vision with a much richer palette.
Dreyfuss, too, is working at his peak. 1977 was his year; he won the Academy Award for Best Actor but, as is often the case with that honor, it was for the wrong role (the Neil Simon romantic dramedy The Goodbye Girl). Dreyfuss’ performance here as Roy Neary is the better, richer one; deeply felt and passionately wrought.
Once again, much of Spielberg’s cinematic power comes from the music of John Williams. That’s particularly true here in those distinctive 5-note tones; they are the crucial point of communication between humans and aliens.
Williams’ compositions run a wide range, from provoking fear and terror to building mystery and, ultimately, capturing elation. The 12-minute suite that underscores the finale is one of his all-time epic achievements (and would be mirrored — and arguably surpassed — five years later in the finale sequence of E.T.).
Star Wars may have been the blockbuster breakout of 1977, but Close Encounters — despite its big budget and Spielberg sentiment — was, in spirit, the year’s art house sci-fi.
In the end, Close Encounters taps into the core of what profound spiritual journeys illuminate, and it’s this: Truth isn’t gleaned through intellectual ascent or clarity. Truth is revealed. It’s experienced. It’s not a collection of facts that can be learned, mastered, and controlled. Truth is a mystery, and it must be encountered.
- Produced by Columbia Pictures, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind marked the first movie that Spielberg made outside of Universal Studios.
- Richard Dreyfuss — reuniting on his second-consecutive film with Spielberg following Jaws — was not the first actor to be offered the role of Roy Neary. Others who turned it down first: Steve McQueen (Spielberg’s initial choice), Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan. For one reason or another, all passed on it.
- Meryl Streep was in the running to play Neary’s wife, but Spielberg chose Teri Garr instead, in large part because of the range of emotion she showed in (of all things) a 30-second coffee commercial.
- This marked Spielberg’s first collaboration with film editor Michael Kahn. It would not be their last. Kahn’s continued partnership with Spielberg is second only in duration to composer John Williams.
- After hearing John Williams score for Star Wars through friend George Lucas, Spielberg said that he feared all of Williams’ good space compositions had been used up. In hindsight, that’s really funny.
- As you stay on the lookout for “Spielberg Oners” (see definition in my post here), there’s one here that could possibly be the most subtle from all of his films. It’s the moment when Roy discovers what “the shape” is that he’s been compulsively sculpting. It’s a 90-second shot in which, after an initial short dolly, the camera never actually moves; rather, it’s Roy’s choreographed movement that causes the shot to shift from being a wide to a medium to a close-up. Another: when Roy and Jillian’s ascend to Devil’s Tower, as helicopters pursue.
- One of the featured UFO watchers in Roy’s suburban neighborhood was played by Roberts Blossom. He would go on to make a strong and lasting impression as the old man neighbor Marley in Home Alone. He also worked once more with Spielberg, in Always.
- There’s a shot of a ship stranded in the middle of a desert. In the distance, scientists look on. This was achieved through good old-fashioned Forced Perspective. A little model of a tanker ship was placed in the sand near the camera; actors were then staged faaaar off in the distance. Then, with the right lens choice, it appears as if people and helicopters are approaching a gigantic tanker of actual size.