RETRO REVIEW – ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

Spielberg's sci-fi classic proves to be an exciting and timeless character drama!

Review by J.T. Johnson

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: November 16, 1977
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Vilmos Zsigmond
WRITER: Steven Spielberg
MUSIC: John Williams

In early 1977, director George Lucas had unleashed “Star Wars” into the world. Later that same year, though, another director also released a seminal sci-fi film. The filmmaker was Lucas’ best friend Steven Spielberg and the movie was “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.

Instead of telling a far out space story about Rebels and evil Galactic Empires, though, Spielberg sought to tell a story about first contact with extra-terrestrials here on Earth. The story opens with a mystery as several scientists discover fighter planes that disappeared in 1945. Meanwhile, several people in a small town in Indiana witness the appearance of several UFOs.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is one of those witnesses and soon, he becomes obsessed with his experience while also experiencing mental pictures of a place he doesn’t know about. Beyond Roy, there is Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey), who not only witness the UFOs but they are also apparently terrorized by the aliens for mysterious reasons.

Soon, the three characters and the government are racing to meet Earth’s newfound visitors. As I watched the film this time, though, I realized for the first time in the many repeat viewings that I’ve had with this movie, that we never really learn why the aliens have been studying us or why they’re returning in the first place. Eventually, they do decide to take Roy with them, but we never really learn why.

I guess the mystery is bigger than we humans can comprehend, but for those in the audience who want all the answers, this is not a film that provides them. In reality, this is a film about broken families and finding a purpose in life. When we meet Roy, he is in a loveless relationship with his wife (Teri Garr) and he is a simple worker for the electric company.

After he experiences the UFOs, he has found something that excites him and something that may just give him purpose. Jillian’s story is a little simpler as she just wants her son back after the now famous abduction scene in her house.

The good news about the ambiguity of the aliens is that Spielberg gets to have a little bit of fun with the audience. We don’t know if the intentions of the aliens are pure or not, so the scene where Barry is abducted is actually quite chilling. Also, earlier on in the film, Roy’s face is burned, suggesting that the aliens may not be all that nice.

The movie, like any great sci-fi story, is in reality a great character piece. Dreyfuss and Dillon, in particular, give star making performances as Roy and Jillian. Roy’s childlike fascination and Jillian’s mixed feelings of both excitement and desperation make the film worth watching alone.

The alien ships are magnificent designs that still hold up today. In the “Special Edition” of the film, Spielberg shot more scenes featuring the inside of the ship. Spielberg later admitted that he did not like the scenes because he thought they revealed too much. However, I don’t think that they particularly take away from mysterious nature of the aliens and they only add more interesting visuals to the mix.

Finally, the main reason that you want to watch this film is for the famous scene where the humans and aliens communicate to each other through music. This is a wonderful showcase for the immortal composer John Williams and that five-note piece that plays throughout the film is a brilliant little composition. Once again, Williams proved why he is Spielberg’s main music man!

The movie is timeless with themes that still resonate today. It is also the rare benevolent look at the possibility of alien life and the possibilities of humanity itself. In a world where several films tell us how bad we are as a species, it’s actually good to see one that has hope in spite of what challenges we may face.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” definitely belongs in the Science-Fiction Hall of Fame!

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