Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Dir. Stephen Spielberg
Premiered November 16, 1977

I’ve waited all day to see this. Procrastinated. I don’t know why I end up here every time. Waiting until night means having to contend with the noise of four roommates, and probably one particularly pushy neighbor. I’m mostly lucky this time.

I play the video. We have a 60-inch smart TV. The motion smoothing is off, of course. We know our shit. The credits play, first in silence, but then John Williams’ score creeps into consciousness.

The film opens cold, disorientingly, not unlike The Exorcist. A cartographer named Laughlin (Bob Balaban) arrives in Mexico. Seemingly hired for no other reason than that he speaks French, to translate for the French scientist Lacombe (François Truffaut, who appears to have been cast purely because Director Steven Spielberg– and probably he alone– could get him). There, they come across a flight of fighter planes, empty, missing since the Second World War, and in perfect working order.

That’s when it happens. My 60-inch screen is now a 12-inch screen, the sofa becomes my parents’ bed. Boy Bands. President Clinton. Soon, President Gore? Boy Scouts, Harry Potter, Pokémon. Allison May, the origin of my redhead fetish. It’s not 1977, but it’s certainly a long time ago. My mother, who showed me my first movie, took me to my first movie in the theater, and has taken me to almost every movie since, has chosen for me a special destiny. To be an artist like her? Not the same kind, though. And she’s very emphatic that I see this now.

I thought I’d been too young to appreciate it. Before buckling down and pressing play in 2017, I struggled to remember the experience. But I needn’t have. I instantly recognize every shot.

It begins with the missing planes. Then a long-lost ship materializes in the Gobi Desert. People in India hear music from an unknown source. In Muncie, Indiana, the home of single mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) is strafed by mysterious lights. Electrical devices come to life. Then the power goes out, and when electrician Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent out to find the problem, an alien spaceship reveals itself to him, burning his face and leading him and the local police on the best chase this side of Smokey and the Bandit, but also leaving him, Jillian, and others around the world with a sound and an image in their heads. They obsess. Jillian moreso when the visitors take away her toddler son (Cary Guffey). Roy’s mania grows. He drives away his wife (Teri Garr) and children, singularly obsessed with bringing the picture in his mind into reality. He’s been chosen. This feels familiar. This feels good.

I think my mother is trying to tell me something. Star Wars made me want to become a filmmaker. Close Encounters of the Third Kind contends that I had always been one.

The parallels to filmmaking are clear. When Lacombe and Roy finally meet, Lacombe, the reasonable authority figure, envies the passion and sense of purpose that Roy has been given, much as one of Spielberg’s authority figures, Stanley Kubrick, envied him. The score, the sound, are like nothing else. Douglas Trumbull’s effects are masterful; even when the artifice shows, as in a handful of chroma key shots, the image is breathtaking– it’s easy to overlook the odd seam here. The better a movie is, the better it seems to be.

I don’t know what happens afterward. I do think the film is lost on me at that young age, but not for its themes or message. I must confess that the movie, and especially the climax, loses some of its weight on a 12-inch screen. But then the 12-inch screen becomes a 60-inch screen. The built-in speakers become a massive surround-sound system, the perk of living with fully-employed editors and cinematographers. And I see Close Encounters of the Third Kind as I should have that first time.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Early in the film, one can hear a faint and apparently unauthorized radio broadcast of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” Contemporary music? What is this, a Scorsese film?

How Did It Do?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a global phenomenon. On a budget of $20 million, it grossed $288 million dollars, enough for Columbia to recoup the losses of Sorcerer eight times over. The third-biggest movie of the year in the US, and second-biggest worldwide. Critics were glowing. 96% glowing. Pauline Kael called it “a kid’s film in the best sense,” which is ironic considering her appraisal of Star Wars. Renoir compared it to Jules Verne and Meliès, essentially counting the film among the immortal canon of science fiction. Ray Bradbury thought it was the best film the genre had ever produced.

During Close Encounters’ development, NASA urged Spielberg to reconsider making the movie, fearing that it would spawn a rash of spurious UFO sightings and claims of alien abduction. Spielberg interpreted this as a vote of confidence in the movie’s success. They were both right. The alien designs, their craft, their abilities, and their mode of communication have defined the popular image of intelligent extraterrestrial life ever since, and both Close Encounters’ distinct imagery and its themes can be found anew throughout genre cinema up to today.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two: Best Cinematography for Vilmos Zsigmond, and Best Sound Effects Editing for Frank Warner. In an unusual turn of events, both Warner and Star Wars’ Ben Burtt, the only nominees that year, received the award, albeit this particular category is kinda squirrelly that way.

Essentially granted a blank check, Spielberg followed Close Encounters up with the disastrous though surprisingly profitable World War II comedy 1941. Faced with the end of his career, Spielberg reluctantly accepted an offer to direct the latest project from his friend George Lucas, who, as previously mentioned, renounced directing after the difficulties of Star Wars. The movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Spielberg was saved.

Next Time: The Goodbye Girl

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