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close encounters of
the third kind

review by rob gonsalves

Steven Spielberg

Hal Barwood
Jerry Belson
John Hill
Matthew Robbins
Paul Schrader

Julia Phillips
Michael Phillips

William A. Fraker
Douglas Slocombe
Vilmos Zsigmond

John Williams

Michael Kahn

* All uncredited. Spielberg took sole
screenwriting credit, though it has
been a matter of some dispute
whether he wrote any of it at all
other than the basic story.


Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary)
François Truffaut
(Claude Lacombe)
Teri Garr
(Ronnie Neary)
Melinda Dillon
(Jillian Guiler)
Bob Balaban
(David Laughlin)
Cary Guffey
(Barry Guiler)
Roberts Blossom
Shawn Bishop
(Brad Neary)
Adrienne Campbell
(Sylvia Neary)
Justin Dreyfuss
(Toby Neary)
Lance Henriksen
George DiCenzo
(Major Benchley)
Carl Weathers

mpaa rating: PG
running time: 137m*
u.s. release: 11/16/77
video availability: VHS - DVD

* This running time refers to the
"collector's edition" cut, generally
assumed to be Steven Spielberg's
preferred cut of the film. Over the
years, its length has varied from
135 minutes (the original 1977
theatrical release) to 132 minutes
(the 1980 "special edition"). The
137-minute version is currently the
only one in print on home video.

other steven spielberg films
reviewed on this website:

- a.i.: artificial intelligence
- amistad
- catch me if you can
- e.t. (special edition, 2002)
- jurassic park
- the lost world: jurassic park
- minority report
- munich
- saving private ryan
- schindler's list
- the terminal
- war of the worlds

"They haven't aged a day. Einstein was right."
"Einstein was probably one of them."

Close Encounters of the Third Kind may be the greatest film ever made about the meeting of the rational and the mystical. Steven Spielberg grounds this fantasy in all manners of banal reality -- the comptrollers wondering what to make of an unidentified flying object; the linemen dealing with the power outages caused by wandering spacecraft; the homey clutter of suburban life (Spielberg's films contain probably the most accurate reproductions of an average kid's bedroom, a cocoon of toys); the comforting, perpetual buzz of background TV. The movie has a kind of hopeful, quasi-religious fervor -- the sense that something else is out there and finds us worthy of communication. The dozens of awestruck faces at the climax could just as easily be witnessing the burning bush, or the resurrection of Christ, or the face of God himself. "This means something," goes the movie's refrain, as if the film lusted for evidence of a higher significance. A simple genre label -- sci-fi alien flick -- doesn't fit well on a spiritual-quest story like Close Encounters.

Various people in the film, including everyman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and single mom Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), receive mysterious, maddening visions and sounds they can neither explain nor ignore. A five-note phrase of music; a mound-like shape -- these unearthly mental blips turn ordinary midwestern suburbanites into obsessives. Roy feels vaguely detached from his sensible wife (Teri Garr) and three kids anyway; he has the air of a hollowly happy family man, a father and husband who has settled into the life he thinks is appropriate. Bedevilled more and more by his glimpses of a larger pattern, Roy falls into despair and insanity. Spielberg doesn't flinch from doing justice to the impact all this has on his family. In an especially painful scene, Roy's wife finds him sitting numbly in the tub under the shower, fully clothed; she screams at him -- her helpless rage and fear are perfectly convincing -- and his eldest boy slams the bedroom door in a fury again and again. (This was one of the scenes Spielberg added for the 1980 "special edition.") Dreyfuss plays Roy as a hapless visionary caught between exaltation and terror -- he would rather not be singled out this way, especially since he doesn't know who or what is singling him out, and why. But a growing part of him wants to cut and run -- he becomes determined to find answers.

This was probably the ideal post-Vietnam big-movie fantasy. Spielberg takes it for granted that we'll accept that the military will shroud inexplicable events in secrecy and lies, but, as in E.T. five years later, we get the impression that the people in charge are hoodwinking us for our own good (can you imagine the mass hysteria if the general public received incontrovertible evidence of aliens visiting us?). The movie has some faith -- misplaced or not, who's to say? -- in the official structures designated to deal with otherworldly guests. A large section of Wyoming is evacuated (the official story is nerve gas), probably so that the people who know what they're doing can be left alone to do their work. Spielberg was right to cast François Truffaut as Lacombe, the benevolent paranormal expert who devises a method of communicating with aliens via hand signals (he assumes, of course, that aliens are at least marginally humanoid and have hands). Truffaut has the air of a dreamer who has grown accustomed to bending reality to his dreams.

Close Encounters begins on a beautifully ominous note, during a sandstorm in Mexico, where a sunburned old man says that "the sun came out last night" and "sang to him." Planes have been found there -- "These planes were reported missing in 1945," we're told, and John Williams' music deepens as the cartographer Laughlin (Bob Balaban) lets that uncanny news sink in. Viewed today, this can be seen as the movie that launched a hundred X-Files episodes. Close Encounters may also be the most exciting film in history that contains almost no action. Spielberg keeps the camera restless and moving at the speed of intellect. He's not above a little horror-movie thrill, as when Jillian's young son Barry (Cary Guffey) is spirited away by the aliens -- the scene, coming as it does when we're not yet sure what the aliens want or if they mean us harm, delights in showing us how vulnerable our homes are when an unearthly force wants to get inside.

The film only lags a little in the second hour, when Roy and Jillian are on the run and scaling Devil's Tower, pursued by helicopters spraying some sort of soporific. There's only so much climbing up rocky inclines one cares to watch, and Spielberg cheeses out for a brief moment when Roy stumbles and takes forever to get back up. But the sequence also gives us an amorphous and therefore plausible semi-romance between Roy and Jillian, two loners who have lost their families to the aliens, and who understand each other because no one else does. A kind of love, wreathed in a shared devotion to the cause of finding the truth, develops between the seekers. A third character joins them briefly on the run, but falls quickly by the wayside; the journey is only for those who have sacrificed.

Spielberg and special-effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull stage an extraordinary light show at the end, one that keeps topping itself -- it's amusing on subsequent viewings to see Lacombe and his crew getting all excited over what turn out to be the sparklers before the grand finale; they applaud and think it's all over, but the best is yet to come. I can think of few sequences as electrifying -- and as unlikely in its excitement -- as the duet between the Mothership and the earth musicians recruited for the task. Described simply, it's just the aliens and the earthlings' computer carrying on a sprightly little John Williams conversation. We can't know what is actually said between the two, but it sounds like an animated discussion of mutual curiosity and kindness. The notes of music mingle and wrap around each other in the night air; the sequence is both funny and orgiastic.

In 1980, Spielberg wanted to revisit the film, picking up some shots and sequences he hadn't had the money to nail down in 1977. Columbia agreed, but on the condition that Spielberg take the audience inside the Mothership along with Roy, as a marketing hook. Against his better judgment, Spielberg relented, and one can only be grateful that the needless coda -- which was decidedly unimpressive and anticlimactic anyway -- now exists only as a supplemental deleted scene on the DVD. In the movie as it stands now, Roy disappears into the light, and the ship ascends, and that's all you need to see or know.

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