Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Year: 1977

Production: Columbia

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Gary Guffey, Bib Balaban

Screenwriter: Steven Spielberg

Novelization (1977) by Steven Spielberg

135 minutes; Color

After Star Wars came the second major sf film production in 1977, at over twice the cost but with a story which, while lacking the comic-book appeal of Star Wars, perhaps cuts deeper in its evocation, rare in sf cinema, of a sense of wonder. A power company technician (Dreyfuss) witnesses a series of UFO appearances and develops an obsession with them which is almost religious in its nature and intensity. He becomes convinced that aliens plan to land one of their craft on an oddly shaped mountain in Wyoming. A parallel plot concerns a secret group of scientific and military experts also engaged in uncovering the secret of the UFOs. The film ends in a barrage of special effects when the spacecraft arrives; communication between the two species is achieved by means of bursts of light and music. The hero enters the mother ship, much as Tam Lin once entered the Fairy Mound, and is taken to the Heavens in a glowing apotheosis; the elfishness of the slim aliens supports a reading in which UFO occupants are mythically equivalent to fairies. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has flaws , but remains an intensely evocative work, certainly one of the half dozen best sf films to date. Despite the pressure from Columbia to produce a financial blockbuster, Spielberg did not take easy way out but made an intelligent and relatively complex film, maintaining the high standards he had set himself in Duel (1971) and Jaws (1978). The special effects are excellent. A different version, Close Encounters of the Third Kind - The Special Edition, was released in 1980.

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Unlike Star Wars (1977) which revitalized the genre by investing the traditional hokum of 30s serials with a wholly modern mix of special effects, or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which mixed its special effects with bland overbearing philosophical speculation, Close Encounters sees Spielberg magnificently deploying a vast array of cinematic effects to create the most primitive responses in his audience, one that takes us back to the origins of the moving image that is the cinema: a sense of wonder.

Quite simply, Spielberg's success, demonstrated earlier in Jaws (1975) and later in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), lies in his ability to deflect any preconceptions an audience might have about aliens or sf in general and leave it simply watching the skies in awe. Accordingly, the film has none of the paranoia that infects so much of sf, in print or on celluloid. Even the representatives of authority who try to stop Dreyfuss and Dillon reaching the landing place agreed between Truffaut and the extra-terrestrials, turn out to be friendly, and when Dreyfuss breaks through the securiiy cordon he is welcomed by both. In place of paranoia Spielberg substitutes obsession, seen equally in Truffaut's scientist who has travelled the world examining the physical evidence left by the aliens in their attempts to communicate with us, and in Dreyfuss' unstructured attempts to make sense of his own close encounter. All this leads remorsely to the climactic encounter with the aliens (greatly expanded, but less effective in the re-edited Special Edition of the film), in which the audience is allowed a degree of emotional participation rarely seen in the cinema as Spielberg stage-manages the most benign possible meeting of man and alien.

This benevolent view of life beyond the stratosphere is carefully prepared by Spielberg who divides the responses to the idea of kindly aliens between his three major characters. Dillon travels towards the Devil's Tower in Wyoming because she cares for the child she's lost to the aliens (in one of the most thrilling deployments of special effects in the history of the cinema) while Truffaut, whose Gallic charm is used by Spielberg as a shorthand for liberal humanism, cares scientifically. But most impressive of all is Dreyfuss, a typical Spielberg hero, a man at odds with himself because he has no great role to play. He is the tetchy employee of the power company given a chance to amount to something by following through his obsession. It is his performance and his domestic environment (in which miracles like the parting of the Red Sea, glimpsed in a sequence from The Ten Commandments, 1956, on his tv, are a commonplace) that, above all, prepare the audience for the most gloriously optimistic ending in the history of the sf film.

Although, like Citizen Kane (1941), the origins of Close Encounters in no way determine its meanings, its roots are of interest, especially as the movie is the climax of the flying-saucer films of the 50s which were directly inspired by the UFO sightings that began in earnest in 1947. The film's title is derived from The UFO Experience (1972) by Dr J. Allen Hynek (who was also a technical advisor on the movie and appears as the pipe-smoking observer at the climactic meeting with the aliens). Similarly, the Truffaut character is based on Jacques Vallee, a French UFO-logist (and one-time collaboraior of Dr Hynek) and many of the details of the film are based on actual reports of UFO sightings. Not surprisingly, the film has been hailed by UFO-logists as sympathetic to their views. However, whether Spielberg is or isn't a "true believer" and the fact that the origins of much of the film lie in UFO-logy, though they provide fuel for interesting speculations in their own right, are finally irrelevant to the film itseif The movie's success lies not in its sources but in Spielberg's majestic transformation of his diverse material.

In 1980, Spielberg re-edited his material, adding new footage, deleting some of the sequences in Dreyfuss' home and extending the encounter with the aliens, for release as Close Encounters of the Third Kind - The Special Edition.

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