“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” Movie Review


     For its 40th anniversary, Steven Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” has been restored with a glorious 4K print and a special one week release in theaters, allowing us to once again see this classic film on the big screen.  And while it’s hard to believe this film is actually 40 years old (it was released on December 14, 1977), the film stands the test of time, both in the ideas it explores, as well as the awe inspiring images on screen.  A short vignette prefacing the film’s presentation features Spielberg’s home movies shot on set and interviews with several directors who were inspired in their own careers by Spielberg and specifically the film.  One of which is J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) who describes “Close Encounters” as a film in which Spielberg created the template for how a blockbuster and epic film should look.  Quite a compliment indeed, and it couldn't be more true.

     For the younger generation watching “Close Encounters” today, the technology used by the human characters will certainly warrant an eye roll as to how primitive even the most simplistic of tasks were at the time.  In one important scene, a group of government analysts, with the very best in technology at their disposal, try to decipher a set of numbers they are intercepting via satellite in which one of the men deems are actually coordinates to a specific location.  Today, finding out that location would be as simple as looking it up on the phone in your pocket.  In the film, four guys go into an office and steal a giant Earth globe in order find the predicted landing site of the alien visitors just to figure out the location is in Wyoming.  It’s rather comical when you look at it today and you start to think about what we do and don't take for granted.

     Speaking of things we take for granted, it’s also fair to say movies like “Close Encounters” simply aren't made in this manner any longer.  Now I'm sure the current generation has their favorites, and certainly a hand picked few which they will someday refer back to as having been influential in their lives, but “Close Encounters” is one of the films that began the blockbuster era and is responsible, as J.J. Abrams points out, for the look and feel of today’s tentpole event films.  If only filmmakers didn’t have the tendency to use available technology to the point of excess while jamming their films with thousands of CGI shots in order to give their creations an eye candy like appeal.  While the modern thriller and Summer blockbuster began with Spielberg’s 1975 shark fest, “Jaws”, both “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters” began perfecting the art of the event film in 1977, doing so by focusing on narrative and characterization first and only then creating groundbreaking special effects to wow the audience.  Like “Jaws”, we only get small glimpses of the would be visitors until we arrive at the final 20 minutes of the film.  Today, there never seems to be time allotted for a build in tension, and many times a film’s marketing completely gives away the story’s most coveted secrets.

     “Close Encounters” feeds the audience a little bit a time, ensuring there is always that hunger to know more.  Has any other film managed to spend its final ten minutes with no dialogue at all until the very last frame in which Barry (Cary Guffey) utters the words “bye bye” to the departing mother ship, due simply to the sheer awe inspiring gravity of the situation and all that led up to it?  “Close Encounters” achieves this by telling a story about regular everyday people who are suddenly thrusted into extraordinary circumstances, but does so by immersing us into the characters first.  Within a half hour, we know specific details about three different sets of people who will be effected by the alien arrival in multiple ways. First, there’s Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a French scientist who along with his team move about the world having been notified of various reappearances of lost aircraft, ships, and other strange phenomenon that seem to be linked to the possibility of otherworldly visitors.  Next, we meet Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey) who live in a rural area of Indiana and seem to peak the interest of the incoming visitors.  And finally, we spend considerable time with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr), and their four kids as they navigate a cluttered and turbulent life that goes into a complete tailspin when Roy has his first encounter with the visitors.

     For all its iconic imagery and locations, “Close Encounters” thrives because we get to know these characters, and at the time, we could relate to them too because all of us back then (late 1970s to early 1980s) were growing up in the same exact household with all of the same problems.  Imagine then the thought of possibly escaping that norm and suddenly finding yourself in the midst of a full blown visit by beings from another world.  That’s what “Close Encounters” meant to someone who was growing up at the time, especially me.  It’s why to this day, I can’t eat mashed potatoes without sculpting Devil’s Tower with my fork.  It’s why John Williams’ magical score, which he miraculously composed the same year he did “Star Wars” for George Lucas, is part of a soundtrack playlist I listen to regularly.  And it’s one of many films that influenced the way I look at them today, as it remains a shining example of how to get an audience to root for a character to succeed, regardless of what he must sacrifice in order to do so.

     As good as the characters are; however, the imagery on display throughout the film clearly demonstrates Spielberg’s ability to leave us in awe as we see and experience a story that seemed fresh, yet familiar.  Once Roy and Jillian make it all the way to the landing site next to Devil’s Tower, the story has built up to a sequence that had to come across as nothing short of special in order for those sacrifices the characters made to have been worth it.  This may be where Spielberg was first recognized as the master director he is known as today.  Sure, “Jaws” is a classic as well, but isn’t the true measure of a great filmmaker the ability to sustain success over a long period of time?  Could he prove to be as good in a completely different arena?  Of course, we know the answer now as being yes, and for me that was cemented during the sequence in which the mother ship arrives at the landing site.  The sheer size and magnitude of the ship as it rumbles over the top of Devil’s Tower and dwarfs everything around it instantly became one of those iconic sequences that is now ingrained in film lore.  The scene accomplished everything it needed to, with not a single word uttered by anyone on screen, by way of Williams’ powerful score, our first look at the visitors, and communication between two worlds based solely on sound, tone, and gesture.  We also get satisfying closure for every character involved, but there was also plenty of mystery and intrigue as to how the aliens may have perceived us and why they visited in the first place.  Which is exactly why we are still discussing and dissecting this film some 40 years later.  Because we always do wonder, are we alone? GRADE: A+