An astonishing sci-fi-drama that is also one of Spielberg’s very best, complete with awe-inspiring scenes and heartwarming embrace of humanity.
Dir. Steven Spielberg
1977 | USA | Drama/Sci-Fi | 138 mins | 2.39:1 | English
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban
Plot: Roy Neary, an electric lineman, watches how his quiet and ordinary daily life turns upside down after a close encounter with a UFO.
Awards: Won 1 Oscar – Best Cinematography. Nom. for 7 Oscars – Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Sound.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Mainstream
First Published: 4 Jan 2007
Two years before Ridley Scott scared the wits out of moviegoers with the claustrophobic Alien (1979), a young Steven Spielberg had already thought of outer space. He gave us benevolent aliens instead.
While Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien are undeniably great films about that nagging possibility of life in the faraway corners of our universe, both represent very clearly two extreme ends of the spectrum between good and evil.
Close Encounters was made at a time when science-fiction cinema was godly. The late ’70s and early ’80s were the golden periods for science-fiction that saw the likes of top-quality films such as Star Wars (1977), Alien, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Blade Runner (1982) being worshipped on the pedestal for cinematic brilliance.
Fresh from the box-office and critical success of Jaws (1975), Spielberg pushed the boundaries of sci-fi storytelling with a bold and visionary film that continues to weave its magic on moviegoers more than thirty years on.
Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, an out-of-sorts father whose encounter with UFOs one night causes him to become inexplicably drawn to a certain image that he tries to make sense of. Ignoring his frustrated family, he builds an entire sculpture that looks like a huge rock mountain out of mud, soil, and brick right in his home.
“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
That whole sequence is a splendid example of a set-piece that is not only absurdly hilarious, but also acts as a midpoint ‘bridge’ between the film’s establishing first half and the free-spirited second half.
Spielberg intentionally paces the film more slowly than your typical Hollywood blockbuster, taking time to create a strong sense of mystery of the unknown. There is misdirection in certain scenes that suggest that the aliens could be malevolent. The long setup creates suspense and builds to a high level of anticipation.
When we eventually get to the climax, we sense something truly special is about to happen. John Williams’ unforgettable score is integral to the success of this setup as he plays with variations of the famous five-note leitmotif that would burst into a full orchestral piece in the climax.
The majestic finale is awe-inspiring, and a feast for the eyes and ears. Through the use of models, clever use of lighting, and framing of shots, Spielberg conjures up a climatic set-piece that remains one of the best in the history of Hollywood cinema. In hindsight, with Close Encounters, Spielberg has fashioned what seems like a ‘prelude’ to his most famous film E.T.
While E.T. is undeniably an emotional roller coaster ride of the highest order, Close Encounters is a more sensory one that emphasizes pure visual spectacle. Even then, the film is remarkably thought-provoking.