When aviator Kenneth Arnold spotted a group of glowing objects in the skies over Mount Rainer in June 1947, the resulting news stories sparked a global wave of interest. As reports of other sightings began to appear, their mystery deepened. Could they be aliens? And if so, were they benign, or invaders?
These questions were repeatedly explored in the 50s and 60s, and UFOs – a term coined in 1952 – became a kind of Rorschach test for writers and filmmakers. In The Flying Saucer (1950), the craft of the title was the secret invention of an American scientist. In The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) the flying saucer’s alien occupant is a benevolent Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie), who emerges with a dire warning about humanity’s capacity for violence.
In just about every other flying saucer movie of the 50s and 60s, including The War Of The Worlds (1953), Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956) and The Creeping Terror (1964) their aliens are imagined as cruel, often freakish invaders.
When director Steven Spielberg looked up at the night sky, meanwhile, it was with a sense of wonder, and a genuine belief that extra-terrestrials really were looking back down at us.
“I had a real, deep-rooted belief that we had been visited in this century,” the director said in a 1998 interview. “I was a real UFO devotee in the 1970s, and really into the UFO phenomenon from reading. For me, it was science.”
Following the unexpectedly huge success of Jaws in 1975, Spielberg would harness that sense of curiosity and awe in his next hit, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
When he was 17, Spielberg made his first UFO movie, Firelight, a two-hour feature about scientists investigating a series of alien abductions. Within seven years, Spielberg had already made his mark as a professional filmmaker, and after the success of Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974), he planned to return to the UFO phenomenon for his next movie.
Initially imagined as a low-budget film or even a documentary, Spielberg gradually realised that the effects-laden story percolating in his mind couldn’t be made for the same amount of cash he’d been allotted for Sugerland Express. Fortunately for Spielberg, the returns from Jaws (which he decided to make before his UFO movie) would give him an unprecedented amount of creative freedom courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Spielberg envisioned a story that was about extraterrestrials and government conspiracies, a concoction he described as “UFOs and Watergate”. Initially called Watch The Skies, a name borrowed from the famous concluding line from 50s sci-fi horror The Thing From Another World.
The movie was later retitled Kingdom Come (a title which sprang from a rejected draft of the script by Paul Schrader), and finally Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – a name inspired by researcher J Allen Hynek’s classification system for UFO sightings. It wasn’t a title the executives at Columbia particularly liked.
“One of my biggest struggles wasn’t financing – because after Jaws, everyone was willing to offer financing – it was getting my title through the marketing department at Columbia pictures.”
Getting the script written wasn’t particularly easy, either. Although the screenplay is credited to Steven Spielberg in the opening titles, Paul Schrader, David Giler and John Hill were among the half-a-dozen or so writers who also worked on it. The problem, it seemed, was striking the right personal note Spielberg was looking for in the story.
“Police officers make very credible witnesses. At one point, I thought the main character should even be a military person,” Spielberg said in a 1998 documentary about the making of Close Encounters. “But you don’t identify with people in uniform. I tried to make this person as common as possible. I wanted to make it about me, my parents, and friends I knew.”
Although not as troubled as the infamously arduous production on Jaws, Close Encounters‘ making was still difficult. While Spielberg juggled film locations in California, India and a pair of disused aircraft hangars in Alabama, Douglas Trumbull worked on his extremely expensive visual effects. As Close Encounters‘ budget ballooned, Columbia Pictures began to falter. “If we knew it was going to cost that much,” one studio executive later admitted, “we wouldn’t have greenlighted it because we didn’t have the money.”
With Columbia facing bankruptcy, its bosses were pinning all their hopes on Close Encounters being a hit. And as production difficulties pushed the movie’s intended summer 1977 release back, Spielberg faced mounting pressure to finish the picture and get it into cinemas.
“I remember being forced to finish it before it was ready,” Spielberg later said. “I felt I was being pushed to finish it based on huge corporate matters I had no ability to comprehend. Something about Columbia facing bankruptcy, that Close Encounters was either going to break the company or get it out of the red.”
Fortunately for both Spielberg and the studio, Close Encounters was a hit. It may have cost a then expansive $20 million to produce, it made a remarkable $288 million on its initial release, a figure which climbed further when it was reissued in an extended Special Edition in 1980.
Close Encounters must have looked like an expensive gamble for Columbia’s executives before its release on the 16th November 1977, but they needn’t have worried – Spielberg’s wide-eyed account of alien visitation struck a lasting chord with audiences, and its imagery and music would become a regular pop culture reference point for years afterwards.
“This means something. This is important.”
Close Encounters opens with an ominous, tone-setting scene in the Sonoran Desert. Here, government scientist Lacombe (Francois Truffault) finds group of World War II planes dumped among the dunes. Reported missing three decades earlier, here they are, intact and almost as good as new, the location of their pilots still a mystery.
Meanwhile, in Muncie, Indiana, a three-year-old boy, Barry (Cary Guffey) is woken up by an unseen visitor, who somehow sets all his radio-controlled toys off and leaves the contents of the fridge scattered all over the kitchen floor.
Not far away, ordinary blue-collar worker Joe McNeary (Richard Dreyfuss) has a mysterious encounter of his own. While out on his duties as a lineman, he sees an extraordinary ship in the sky, whose dazzling lights leave half of his face sunburned.
Roy’s close encounter also has an immediate emotional effect. Not only does his quasi religious experience draw an emotional wedge between he and his wife (she can only sit with bemusement as he drags her and the kids off UFO hunting in the dead of night), but the after-image of a mountain gradually becomes an obsession. Either telepathically or subliminally flashed into his brain, this image begins to appear, from Roy’s standpoint, everywhere he looks, from a handful of shaving cream, to a plateful of mashed potato.
“This is important. It means something,” Roy says, as he begins sculpting a mountain into whatever comes to hand. As Roy’s connection to his family begins to break down, he forges a new connection with Jillian (Melinda Dillon), whom he meets when her son Barry runs off into the night after a visiting UFO.
In a breathtaking scene, Barry’s later abducted by the alien visitors, who arrive in a glowing cloud like the God of the Old Testament. Jillian runs out of the house, and can only watch helplessly as the alien ship disappears into the roiling sky.
With Roy’s family gone following his latest mountain-building episode, he finally makes the connection: the image in his mind is the Devils Tower in Wyoming, a meeting place the aliens have also arranged with the US government, thanks to a previously beamed series of coordinates.
Jillian and Roy make a pilgrimage to the landmark, avoiding government forces who’ve faked an environmental catastrophe in order to clear the area of witnesses. In a final act drenched in light and music, the pair finally have their faith rewarded; the aliens arrive in their vast ships, release the various humans they’ve abducted over the years (including little Barry) and whisk Roy off for adventures in parts unknown.
“I just want to know that it’s really happening.”
A bare-bones description of Close Encounters‘ special effects sequences can’t do justice to how beautiful they often look. Drawing on the saturated use of colour and sumptuous matte painting work of the classic Invaders From Mars, Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s lighting and framing of these moments is little short of beautiful. Even incidental moments, such as a group of locals waiting by a roadside for a glimpse of a UFO, are given an almost surreal, dreamlike quality.
The luminous lighting and framing is offset against some brilliant, naturalistic acting from Dreyfuss and those who play various members of his family – his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr), and his kids Brad (Shawn Bishop), Toby (Justin Dreyfuss) and Silvia (Adrienne Campbell). Spielberg employs a similar semi-improvised approach to his drama scenes that he brought to his breakthrough hit Jaws and would return to again in E.T. (1982).
Close Encounters allowed Spielberg’s imagination to run riot. It’s filled with religious allusions and imagery, as underlined by a brief cameo from the biblical epic The Ten Commandments on the McNeary household’s television. Spielberg likens an encounter with aliens as being akin to meeting God – Doug Trumbull’s spaceships look like cathedrals dotted with thousands of lights, not unlike the prophet Ezekiel’s visions of wheels within wheels and blinding lights in the Bible. Devils Mountain is like Mount Sinai, and Roy McNeary is a blue-collar Moses called for a meeting with his maker.
Close Encounters could be described as a religious epic for Ufologists, with the meeting of aliens as part secret prog rock gig (complete with bravura light displays and unforgettably catchy five-note keyboard solos), part transcendental spiritual event. Admittedly, the aliens don’t stand up to the scrutiny of jaded modern eyes, and the film’s events are essentially a long build up to its light-filled climax, in which Williams’ music and Trumbull’s special effects (not to mention Michael Kahn’s editing) take centre stage.
Spielberg’s use of visual and narrative tricks to heighten tension leave behind more than a few mysteries. If the aliens are indeed benign, why did they kidnap so many men, women and children, and what did they do with them? Why did they take away little Barry, only to hand him back only a few days later? Why would such an advanced species, who can build vast interstellar ships, sneak into an ordinary family’s house and vandalise the kitchen?
Although critics were extremely favourable towards Close Encounters, not everyone was entirely satisfied. The editor of Amazing Science Fiction magazine, Ted White, wrote in an August 1978 editorial, “I enjoyed the visual thrills in Close Encounters, but I left the theatre resenting the obvious ways in which the movie tried to manipulate me.”
It’s certainly true that Spielberg manipulates us and toys with our expectations throughout Close Encounters, and that its events are more atmospheric than strictly logical. But then, this is precisely the point: just as Jaws played on collective primal fears about predators lurking below the surface of the water (and had precious little to do with the behaviour of real sharks), so Close Encounters plays at our collective hopes and concerns about what UFOs might or might not be.
Spielberg’s Special Edition, released in 1980, added in a scene where we see the inside of the alien mothership – something Columbia executives wanted to see, but Spielberg later removed again for the 1998 Collector’s Edition DVD. “The inside of that mothership is the exclusive domain of the audience’s imagination,” Spielberg said, rightly noting that it’s the aliens’ mysterious quality that makes them so captivating. “That should always been left a mystery.”
“Major Walsh, it is an event sociologique.”
Of course, Close Encounters wouldn’t be Spielberg’s last movie about alien visitations. Although his ideas for a Close Encounters sequel called Night Skies never materialised, another of his concepts did. While filming the climactic Devils Tower sequence back in 1977, Spielberg began to think about a story where an alien was left stranded on Earth.
“I remember the idea coalescing in my mind on Close Encounters,” Spielberg said. “When the little extraterrestrial did the hand signs, I thought, what if he got left behind? Should I change the movie right now?”
Excited about the idea, Spielberg shared it with Columbia’s executives, only to be met with a surprising response.
“I brought [the idea] to Columbia first, because I had the inspiration on the set of Close Encounters, but of course they turned me down,” Spielberg said. “They didn’t like it.”
That concept would eventually become E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which took many of the visual and thematic ideas from Close Encounters, and formed them into a movie that would soon become one of the biggest financial hits of all time.
Close Encounters, then, was at once a remake of Spielberg’s teenage experiment, Firelight, a proving ground for E.T., and a classic sci-fi movie in its own right. Viewed 35 years later, Close Encounters still has that same awe-inspiring, ethereal quality that Spielberg strove to create.
It’s a modern fairytale for the saucer age, and a wish-fulfilment fantasy for any child who’s ever looked up in wonder at the stars.
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