Star Struck: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" at 40

Introducing the fantastical elements and wonderstruck tone that are essential to Spielberg’s legacy, "Close Encounters" remains a landmark.
Duncan Gray

In the cinema of Steven Spielberg, to say nothing of the cinema of science fiction, of Hollywood, and of practical effects, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is a landmark, like the silhouette of a small mountain in the night skyline. Spielberg’s Duel (1971), carried over from television to movie theaters, was a wisp of a story elevated by its visual dynamism. His theatrical debut, The Sugarland Express (1974), was another 70s American road movie, notable today for the way it combines the appealing grit of the New Hollywood (and of Duel) with a much warmer, more charitable view of America and its culture. It contains the director’s first of many broken family units and was his first film scored by John Williams, even if it has almost none of the Williams trademarks. Jaws (1975) was the breakout smash, a lurid bucket-of-blood movie turned into a light day-at-the-beach movie, and a sign of the craft that could elevate a simple B-horror premise to the box office stratosphere. But Close Encounters was the vital turning point, introducing the fantastical elements and wonderstruck tone that would become essential to Spielberg’s legacy.

Spielberg's films, whether set in an imagined future or a filtered past, so often return to a struggle between child- and adult-like impulses. Sometimes, this is strikingly literal: the chase at the end of E.T. (1982), say, or the idea of making Hook (1991) at all. But more often it is a matter of philosophy: pragmatism versus sentimentality, cynicism versus naivety, jadedness versus awe. In a 1976 interview, when Spielberg's path forward was still uncertain, Robert Altman called Jaws "a magnificent accomplishment for a kid that age"—a startling reminder that Spielberg was under 30 when he directed it—but questioned whether its success would allow Spielberg to make "a small personal film." It's an interesting quote to stumble across after four decades of Spielberg hits and misses, chiefly because it raises the question of what, for a director so attuned to showmanship, spectacle, and cinematic myth-making, a Spielberg film that's small in scale and personal in nature would actually look like. (I suspect that what we're describing could very well be E.T., which also happened to be the biggest blockbuster of the decade.) It would not be the last paradox for Spielberg that, when Close Encounters appeared at the end of 1977, it was his most expensive, FX-driven film to date, as well as the fullest articulation yet of Spielberg the personal artist.

It was not an easy film to make. Development began before Jaws, but stalled. The script passed through many hands, with Spielberg ultimately getting the sole screen credit. The production ran nervously over budget. The release date had to be pushed back. And Spielberg would revisit the film over the years, adding, subtracting, and shuffling scenes before settling on a final cut in 1998. But 2017 marks the 40th anniversary since Spielberg's aliens first came in peace, and to mark the occasion, Sony is putting Close Encounters back into theaters in a 4K restoration.

Earlier this year marked another 40th anniversary: that of George Lucas's Star Wars (1977), which back in May was remembered in a flurry of appreciations and think-pieces. The two films remain tied together. They share a composer and a concept artist, and Hollywood history/lore holds that Spielberg and a beleaguered Lucas traded box office points on the movies as a bet, each certain that the other would have a bigger hit. Star Wars is by far the more momentous event; it's still the artistic and financial model for how a successful franchise can be launched, expanded, marketed, merchandized, and exploited to infinity. (It was a messy risk that yielded a magnificent sensation; a studio nowadays should be so lucky). But Close Encounters is the more interesting anniversary, precisely because it is difficult to imagine a blockbuster quite like it appearing in multiplexes today. It is an extravaganza whose modus operandi is primarily—and close to entirely—one of revelation. 

Close Encounters is essentially an extrapolated daydream, or a vivid, deluxe play-by-play of the genre’s most elemental fantasy of contact with alien life. A government team, including a French scientist (François Truffaut, cast by Spielberg out of admiration) and a cartographer (Bob Balaban), crisscross the globe following a trail of strange phenomena. In Mexico, planes that have been missing for decades turn up in the desert; locals say they saw the sun rise in the middle of the night. In India, people hear a song coming from the sky. And out in Muncie, Indiana, UFOs swoop low over the plains and highways. Chief among the witnesses is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an everyman, working dad, and something of an odd case of arrested development. He's introduced playing with a toy train set, then proclaims his love of Disney's 1940 Pinocchio (more on that in a moment), and generally seems ill-suited to life as an adult authority. As Neary turns obsessed with UFOs, it becomes clear that those who saw the lights in the sky have been psychologically effected: a tune stuck in their head, or a shape in their mind's eye that they can't quite place—subliminal invitations, of sorts, drawing them out to a mountain in the badlands of Wyoming, where planet Earth will reach its historic moment.

There are moments of physical conflict in the film, certainly. The alien abduction of the toddler Barry (Cary Guffey) from his mother (Melinda Dillon) is still one of Spielberg's most perfectly scary set-pieces. A chase from the government near the end is the film's conventional man-vs-man moment, as well as its least interesting. But when it comes to the grand finale, consider how simple the plotting is, and how much any physical conflict is disavowed. A few small spaceships appear, followed by more, followed by a mothership. The mothership lands, aliens get off it, a man gets on, and the ship takes off. And that, over the course of an extended thirty-five minutes or so, is it—no world hanging in the balance, no clash of forces, no mayhem, and no demolition except for a single, poorly sound-proofed plate glass window. The film's suspense is how the aliens have been teasing us with their presence. Its payoff is that we're there to see them. 

For the film’s 30th anniversary—will we be doing something like this every ten years?—Spielberg looked back and said that the final half hour of Close Encounters was still the hardest sequence he'd ever had to construct. It is a display of light and sound: mankind and UFO, in search of a universal language, communicate by music, with different colors flashing for each note. The idea was to be operatic, and indeed you could just as easily break this long scene into movements: a string of laser show crescendos, each taking its time, each beginning with trepidation and ending with comfort, and each larger in scale than the one that came before it. The first wave of UFOs begins small and from a distance, like stars dislodged from the sky. Truffaut gets to engage in some on-screen conducting, helping the human technicians find the right tempo. When the mothership emerges with a low rumble, everything goes hushed as its shadow spreads slowly over the scene.

The color and motion, the beams of light through smoke and elongated shadows on the ground, are among the finest pure craft in Spielberg's work. (With photography led by Vilmos Zsigmond, the film may have the most beautiful compositions of any Spielberg film.) And when friendly contact is made, John Williams's score takes over, building from otherworldly to magisterial, and providing a lyricism that was always Spielberg's most underrated strength. As a payoff, this display dazzled. Close Encounters became one of the biggest, most lasting hits of the 1970s, and it entered its five-note musical theme into pop culture iconography. For the first time, the “Spielberg stare” appeared on screens: characters, usually adults, looking off-screen in humbled, rapturous disbelief at the existence of something they never imagined possible.

Can well-expressed naivety be art? Close Encounters is a thoughtful film only in how hard it insists on not being complex at all, in leaning into its simplicity. In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wondered if Spielberg had turned into an artist, before offering a conclusion of her own: "Not exactly—or not yet." Kael would be sterner towards Spielberg and his status as an artist over the years. But in 1977, her reaction glowed with pleasure and amusement, praising the wit, mood, and spirit the film brought to its premise and effects but noting that the human element still had a ways to go. Jonathan Rosenbaum's retrospective review, coming at the tail end of the 1980s, was less enchanted but similarly saw Close Encounters as a film for feeling rather than thinking. He called it "Hollywood mysticism," and both words are deserved. Tellingly, there is a scene in Close Encounters where Roy Neary's children are gathered around the TV to watch Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), another film where mere mortals encounter a divine light show on the slope of a desert mountain. And taking Spielberg's film as an offspring of DeMille provides an interesting angle on where movie piety comes from—or at least makes a tacit admission that when it came to the kitschy Hollywood Bible epics of the 1950s, it was the soundstage spectacle that validated the religion, not the other way around. 

More interesting, then, are the echoes of secular worship that bookend the film: the first to Stanley Kubrick, the last to Walt Disney. Spielberg made no secret of the impact 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had on him when he first saw it, and Spielberg's film briefly references 2001's musical overture right after the opening credits. That is, both movies begin with a black screen, the audience sitting in darkness, and a dissonant, unearthly drone growing in intensity in the soundtrack. The difference is that Spielberg then dives into it as an adventure, whereas Kubrick leaves you wondering which direction is up. As for Disney, Spielberg wanted Williams's score to briefly incorporate "When You Wish Upon a Star"—a quick callback to Neary's beloved Pinocchio—during the climax of the film. You can hear it clearly when Neary glances back over his shoulder. In fact, you can complete it in your head: “anything your heart desires will come to you.” It is, I think, a misstep. It infantilizes Neary a tad too much, and its familiarity evokes another movie it needn't rely on. But the idea of starting with a Kubrickian dilemma—the utter smallness of human beings—then nodding at DeMille's mass-cult splendor, tipping a hit to Truffaut's tender immediacy, and searching for Disneyesque reassurance is a fairly reasonable (if woefully incomplete) equation of how Spielberg was coalescing as a filmmaker. 

The film’s voice, of course, was its own. When Kael used the phrase "kids' movie" to compliment the film, she was speaking of mindsets rather than demographics. There is something appealingly enchanting to the idea that cosmic relations are heading in the right direction; to the way different languages mingle when Truffaut and his interpreters travel the globe; and to the proposition that, in the face of something alien, children are the ones most likely to realize that there's nothing to fear. It is when you apply adult logic that the film's absent-minded regard for politics, its fuzzy approach to a universal spirituality, and its touch of weirdness towards sex stand out. And it is then that less abstract questions—like why exactly the aliens came to kidnap the young boy, whether we find any real romance in Dreyfuss and Dillon's awkward last minute kiss, and how we should feel that his wife (Teri Garr) now has to raise their children without him while he's zooming through the stars—pile up in the corner of the theater. If it is, in many ways, an easy film to pick at, that's because it leaves its nerves exposed.

But I have to wonder how many popcorn blockbusters today would be content to so single-mindedly operate in the key of awe. Has there been any major Hollywood hit this century like Close Encounters of the Third Kind? The Star Wars franchise, still going strong, is and always will be a serialized adventure epic. The Marvel universe is built largely on hip irreverence and a dash of pop culture jokes—the ultimate crowd-pleasing tools for when every fan is both an innocent and an insider. The Christopher Nolan and post-Nolan comic book movies darken their material with grim color palettes and pop-fatalism, to varying degrees of success. The Transformers series, which Spielberg has signed as an executive producer, is a sensory gauntlet where it's difficult to tell where one demolition derby ends and another begins. Jurassic World (2015) took the original's Spielbergian encounter with the extraordinary and put it under several layers of ironic, self-referential humor; its joke was that audiences have seen it all before. The closest new blockbuster in terms of plot is Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (2016), but even that had a ticking clock, the fate of the world up in the air, and aspirations towards dark, high-minded philosophical dilemmas. When Avatar kickstarted the gold rush for 3D back in 2009, it was largely because the technology gave moviegoers a new way to immerse themselves in an environment. But Avatar was also a combat movie in a very generic sense, even if it showed that James Cameron can structure a generic combat movie better than almost any of his peers. (Sony's trailer for the Close Encounters rerelease is practically a text unto itself, mixing forty-year-old footage with the kind of booming, blaring, Hans Zimmer-style wall of sound that has signified "epic!" for the last decade or so.)

"This is something only movies can do," Kael wrote without moral judgement in 1977. "Dazzle you by sheer scale." Anyone who's been alive long enough or immersed themselves in old movies might lament how "dazzle" and "scale" are goalposts that keep moving over the years, and not always in the best direction. But scale in cinema is also a trick of perspective, a matter of the camera being in the hands of a team who knows where to place it, what to reveal, what to leave out, and how to make it new. At movie theaters many times a summer, the skies open up—just as they did over Wyoming—and aliens, mutants, or robots pour out. But rarely does the filmmaking contain any sense of mystery, let alone enough mystery to power a film by itself.

Naturally, Spielberg was still growing. With E.T., he'd revisit the same ground with richer characters and more thematic weight, and by the end of the 1980s, he'd be a multimedia brand who alternated fantastical adventures with prestige period pictures. But the wages of prestige carry an entirely new set of dilemmas, both for born showmen and for any cinephile who feels that a director has just as much a chance of being an artist when they set their sights on UFOs as when they tackle an Alice Walker novel or the Holocaust. To pick a prudent example, E.T. is still one of the most lyrical movies about the inner lives of children that Hollywood has ever produced, while Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a deeply schizoid take on the legacy of World War II in ways it seems not to realize. At the turn of the 21st century, when Spielberg's "artist" status was still up for debate but his "mogul" status was not, Truffaut's former New Wave comrades would have harsh words. Jacques Rivette referred to Spielberg as an "asshole" in a 1998 interview, and Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001) tore into him mercilessly, presenting Spielberg by name as a crass, blundering force for the simplification (and Americanization) of complicated historical realities. 

Spielberg's weighty and airy films surely overlap more than they diverge, and when you take his prolific, inconsistent body of work as a unified whole, he has been brilliant, problematic, negligible, and deceptively meaningful, sometimes within the span of a single film. But then look at him in TV interviews from the days of Close Encounters, a young man talking awkwardly about his own fascination with UFOs and a possible "cosmic Watergate" cover-up, and the only conclusion to draw is that the artist has been such a successful salesman in large part because he believes in his own product. Or, to put it another way, if naivety, reassurance, and movie myths are an inherently limited approach to art, the yearning for them has had plenty of room to be a worthy and complex subject of its own. (It is a matter of frustration with Spielberg’s public perception that Empire of the Sun [1987] and A.I. Artificial Intelligence [2001]—his two films where those battles between "child" and "adult" reach their most ambiguous stalemate—are among his most overshadowed and underestimated works). Close Encounters of the Third Kind is not Spielberg's first iconic classic, nor his best. But it is something of a raw, unfiltered essence, as well as a valuable reminder that if it wants to be worth a damn, the cinema of spectacle should also be a cinema of discovery. I hope that when Close Encounters opens again in theaters, the sight of the mothership emerging from behind the mountain, looking like the biggest thing you've ever seen, still gets an audible reaction.

I hope it always will.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is in select theaters starting Friday, September 1.

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