Steven Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind has returned to UK cinemas in a very limited run. I have now seen this on the big screen in a variety of formats, including 70mm, 35mm and now digital 4K, but the fact remains that any big screen viewing is at least twenty times as powerful as watching it on television. In fact, this is in my top five, must-see at the cinema movies, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
For the purposes of this review, I am assuming everyone has seen the film. If you haven’t, stop reading now and find a screening immediately, because this review will have no regard for spoilers. Here then are ten reasons why, 40 years on, Close Encounters remains a stone-cold classic of the genre, plus one reason why, for all it’s brilliance, the film is flawed.
“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
The opening is nothing less than masterful. Initially silent white on black opening titles are gradually disrupted by an eerie chord, which builds and builds to a dramatic crescendo before the screen explodes into light. This incredible cut simultaneously celebrates the light and sound show that is cinema, hints at the aliens returning those planes that were lost in the Bermuda Triangle into the middle of the Mexican desert, and finally engages the viewer with the dramatic reveal of a light in a sandstorm, which turns out not to be a UFO, but the headlamp of a jeep. Amid the confusion and linguistic misunderstandings that follow, as UN officials meet with Mexican authorities trying to make sense of the inexplicable return of Bermuda Triangle planes, one witness speaks enigmatically of what he saw, whilst a translator notes: “He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.” The sheer mysteriousness of the entire scene sends thrilling shivers up my spine every time I see it.
“Toby! You are close to death!”
This scene, introducing protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family is a brilliantly observed sequence of suburban family squalor. Everyone talks over everyone else, and there are mess, misunderstandings and moments of utter hilarity, such as when Roy informs his oldest son he isn’t going to help with his maths homework, because that was why he went to school and studied, so he wouldn’t have to do maths homework. Or better still, when Roy yells at his younger son, after the noise of his incessant doll smashing pushes him to breaking point: “Toby! You are close to death!”
“This is nuts!”
Lost on the highway at night, Roy stares distractedly at a map whilst car headlights draw up behind his vehicle. Roy waves the car past, but rather than go around, the lights move up. Roy’s subsequent encounter with the UFO, and his eerie discovery of the people watching the UFOs on the hillside, brilliantly heightens the feeling of mystery, with Vilmos Zsigmond’s phenomenal cinematography at it’s most potent with bold, beautiful blacks featuring magical starfields and cloudscapes.
The sequence where little Barry (Cary Guffey) is abducted by aliens is full-on terrifying, like a scene from a horror movie. The only thing that undercuts the terror is Barry’s complete absence of fear, as he has already discovered the aliens are not malevolent.
“I guess you’ve noticed there’s something wrong with Dad…”
Driven insane by the vision of a mountain in his mind, Roy builds said mountain out of shaving cream, pillows and even mashed potato, much to the alarm of his increasingly worried family. Eventually Roy’s breakdown precipitates his wife taking the children and leaving, whilst he remains behind to build a gigantic replica of the mountain in their sitting room. When this mountain turns out to be a real place – deftly revealed as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming – Barry’s mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) joins Roy there, despite the fact that the entire area is being evacuated.
“No-one’s going to believe the plague in this day and age!”
Said evacuation is undertaken due to a government cover-up of gargantuan proportions, and it is here that the film is all too believable. One darkly comic scene features a group of people trying to come up with a cover story scary enough to make sure everyone evacuates (“No-one’s going to believe the plague in this day and age!”), and there is something undeniably unsettling about large government vehicles masquerading as Coca-Cola trucks and the like.
“I want to talk to someone in charge!”
Needless to say, Roy and Jillian defy the quarantine, but are captured and are eventually questioned by Laughlin (Bob Balaban) and LaCombe (Francois Truffaut). The scene where Roy berates them, telling them they have no right to make people crazy, demanding to see “someone in charge” has been paid homage to in several films, most recently the 2014 Godzilla.
The appearance of the mothership
This sequence alone fully justifies seeking this film out on the biggest screen and best sound system possible. Mere words cannot describe the sheer jaw dropping spectacle and beauty of that moment, not to mention the incredible use of sound (most speakers simply cannot handle the low frequencies). The staggering, non-CGI visual effects were ground-breaking and remain as impressive as ever today.
“Play the five tones.”
Sound and music play key roles in the narrative, which includes John Williams’s evocative, Oscar-nominated score (he lost out at the Oscars – to himself – for Star Wars). The sequence where the aliens and humans learn to talk together with music remains a delightful, whimsical moment. Of course, communication is a key theme of the film.
Which brings me to the ending. The moment where Roy volunteers to be taken away by the aliens – sticking out like a sore thumb next to the other potential astronauts all lined up with perfect neatness – is a sublime fusion of exquisite direction, cinematography, editing, sound and music. The way the aliens choose him, lifting his arms and carrying him away in a moment of rapture… It always brings a tear to my eye. Final farewells are said, and the mothership ascends… A cathedral of lights rising into the heavens, becoming a star.
My one criticism?
No matter how you slice it, the fact that Roy goes off with the aliens, leaving his wife and children (presumably forever) doesn’t quite sit right with me. Nor with Spielberg. Years later he admitted he made a mistake with that part of the script, which was doubtless influenced by the trauma of his own parent’s separation (he explored this theme much more effectively in the later E.T. The Extra Terrestrial).
That said, I understand what Spielberg was aiming for at a metaphorical level – a spiritual journey whereby those of limited vision cannot understand what is happening to Roy. I just think the story would have been better served if Roy had a different backstory that meant his ascent with the aliens didn’t mean abandoning a family.
One final thought: This is, absolutely, a deeply spiritual film akin to something of a religious experience. Interest in the UFO phenomena is an understandable response to the spiritual yearning in all of humanity for something greater than themselves. The problem, from a Christian perspective, is that the real UFO phenomena is both deeply alarming and almost certainly demonic. In 1977, Spielberg claimed he would never make a film about unfriendly aliens as the idea seemed absurd to him. Yet since then he has made a number of films that feature more malevolent extra-terrestrials, including War of the Worlds and the fourth Indiana Jones film. I can only wonder at where Spielberg’s research has taken him, and what has caused him to change his mind.
All that said, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still a magnificent, moving and uplifting science fiction classic, filled with wonderful performances and stunning, iconic set pieces. It remains an essential watch on the big screen.