In the Fall of 1977, the suits at Columbia Pictures decided to rush Steven Spielberg’s ambitious and complex UFO sci-fi movie epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind into theaters six months ahead of schedule. The move did not sit well with Spielberg, as it meant lopping several weeks off his production and releasing a film he considered unfinished.
The gambit, however, paid off for Columbia. The early release not only allowed the film to plug directly into a base audience still babbling with Star Wars delirium, it also provided a whiz-bang payoff for another kind of mania that had consumed the nation for much of the previous decade.
The first wave of saucer madness began shortly after the end of World War II, with the Roswell incident and a series of UFO sightings in the Pacific Northwest. The spike in UFO sightings nationwide helped establish science fiction as a viable and extremely profitable (if not exactly respected) film genre. The second wave of sightings began in the early ‘70s and this time was accompanied by a nationwide fascination with Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, paranormal activity and other unexplained phenomena. Collectively they spawned books, TV series, news reports, specialty magazines and movies.
While that first wave was in many ways a direct reaction to the Cold War, the aliens in question acting as communist stand-ins and therefore a threat, the second wave was different. There was something gentler, more curious and naive about it. If UFOs were real (as most people seemed to believe) and they really were piloted by intelligent extraterrestrial beings, well, we should try to make contact with them on friendly terms so we could all live in peace in this crazy universe of ours. The only thing preventing us from doing this was a government determined to keep the truth under wraps.
It was that mindset that Spielberg wanted to tap into with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Unlike Star Wars, which drew its inspiration from Saturday afternoon serials and samurai pictures, Spielberg opted to draw instead from news reports, UFO research, conspiracy theories—as well as a healthy dose of fairy tales. Instead of marauding aliens bent on world conquest, he wanted to push the idea that they were really friendly sorts, curious like we are, simply having a look around on their way to the mall. They just want to say hi and they mean us no harm, though they may kidnap a few of us at random and hold us hostage for thirty years.
For some reason, Spielberg decided the best way to get this across would be to hire Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Hardcore) to write the script. Completed in 1975, Schrader’s script read like an episode of the TV series Project UFO: an Air Force officer assigned to Project Blue Book (the Air Force’s official investigation into reported sightings) has an encounter of his own and together with his superiors spends the next decade trying to make contact. Spielberg called the script “embarrassing” and noted that it had very little to do with UFOs.
He took over the script himself and together with four other uncredited screenwriters, crafted a screenplay that combined elements from Schrader’s original story, Firelight (his own adolescent film) and Pinocchio, which is referenced throughout the film visually, musically and in the dialogue. He also added a number of what would become standard Spielbergisms—the funny but dysfunctional suburban family, separation anxiety and the boyish father who won’t grow up.
When it came to casting, Spielberg first approached every A-lister in Hollywood to play the lead, Roy Neary, from Steve McQueen to Jack Nicholson. They all turned him down, fearing (and rightly so) they’d be upstaged by the massive special effects. Instead Spielberg turned to a collection of solid character actors and it worked to his advantage. Richard Dreyfus is much more believable than Nicholson would have been as Roy, a line worker for the power company who plays with model trains, loves Disney films, and desperately wants to understand what it is he’s experiencing. Teri Garr is perfect as Roy’s long-suffering wife who simply wants everything to be normal, as is Bob Balaban as the confused and sometimes frantic translator and cartographer who’s found himself in some unexpectedly strange circumstances. And in an odd but personal choice, Spielberg went with French New Wave director Francois Truffaut (apparently unable to get directing jobs at the time), who is very, um, French as UFO researcher Claude LaCombe, a character based on the actual French UFO researcher Jacques Vallée (who in later years would conclude that UFOs were really just a conspiracy devised by the US government). Not surprisingly, he also hired John Williams to write the score and Douglas Trumbull, whose groundbreaking work on Kubrick’s 2001 earned him an Oscar, to oversee the special effects.
The film’s opening tells you immediately you’re in for a ride. Beneath a silent black screen, a single note begins to grow and intensify. At the moment the tension becomes nearly unbearable, the note crashes and the screen explodes into intense desert sunlight. We’re introduced to the first of the film’s three storylines— a research team led by Claude LaCombe, that discovers a group of WWII-era Navy fighters sitting neat as can be in the middle of the desert. Even before it was explained onscreen, any kid in that original audience who had seen or read anything about the Bermuda Triangle would recognize them immediately as the planes from Flight 19—a training mission that vanished without a trace in the Triangle in 1945.
We then cut to an air-traffic control center trying to deal with a commercial jet that’s buzzed by an apparent UFO, then to the second storyline and the rural home of single mom Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon). Her two-year-old son Barry (Cary Guffey) awakens as all of his battery operated toys come to life. Instead of screaming and hiding, Barry wanders downstairs and interrupts some presumed aliens who are raiding the fridge and making an unholy mess of the kitchen. We are never shown the aliens—only Barry’s reaction to them—but he finds them friendly enough to follow them outside and into the woods.
We then finally cut to the third and central storyline as we are introduced to Roy Neary, who is in the midst of trying to convince his loud and cynical children that they really, really do want to see Pinocchio when the lights go out across the region. Being a lineman, he heads out in search of the trouble, gets lost and has an encounter of his own that is at once terrifying, comic and mystical. While trying to chase the saucer he nearly runs down Barry, who is likewise chasing the saucer and meets Barry’s mom, who is chasing Barry.
In the days following the encounter, Roy becomes obsessed with the incident. He also finds that he’s plagued with a vision he can’t shake—a mountain he’s never seen before. He attempts to re-create it with whatever’s handy (clay, shaving cream, and in one of the film’s most famous scenes, mashed potatoes) but nothing is quite right. His increasingly erratic behavior costs him both his job and his family, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
Meanwhile, LaCombe and his team are finding other large vehicles lost in the Bermuda Triangle deposited in unlikely deserts around the globe and while in India, they also encounter a five-tone theme that will weave its way through the rest of the film and reveal itself to be the key to breaking the extraterrestrial language barrier. (It will also inspire a minor disco hit that briefly rode up the charts after the film’s release.) LaCombe explains much of this as he introduces the theme to a group of government officials. He connects the five tones to a series of hand signals, though it’s never explained why hand signals developed by a 19th century Italian music teacher would be of much use in communicating with aliens.
While this is happening, the aliens return to Barry’s house and, in a scene designed and shot like something out of a straight horror film, rip the child from his mother’s arms and carry him away into the sky.
Over at Roy’s house, his madness is growing worse as he attempts to build a model of his vision out of garbage cans and mud in his living room. By chance he sees a special report about a toxic spill near Devil’s Tower, Wyoming and it all becomes clear. He suddenly realizes where he needs to be.
It’s worth noting here that up until this point, despite all of LaCombe’s highminded talk, the aliens have been presented as a menace. They’ve caused car accidents and nearly destroyed passenger planes, they’ve kidnapped children and made a mess of kitchens. They seem as much a threat as they did in the films of the ‘50s and John Williams’ score reflects this.
In what is perhaps his last honestly interesting soundtrack, the music for the first half of the film is modernist, discordant and unsettling. Only in the second half, as Roy and Jillian discover themselves with a real, tangible mission, as the government conspiracy is revealed and as the aliens prove themselves to be kind souls just here to say hello—in short as the film becomes an adventure with a magical ending—does the music become fully orchestral and melodic, complete with references to “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Watching it now and listening carefully, it’s no surprise to learn that Spielberg edited the film to the music and not vice-versa. The rhythm and pacing change dramatically with the shift in the music, as does the lighting. Much of the first half of the film is murky, the music spare. As the music brightens and coheres, so does the screen, culminating in a final sequence in which the brilliant lights of the spacecraft dominate the screen and the music soars to nearly absurd levels.
That whole final sequence, actually, is worth another look, both for what it answers and what it doesn’t. In many ways it works like an episode of The X-Files but with a real payoff. Roy and Jillian, who have been chosen for unknown reasons, duck around a government cover-up to discover for themselves the truth about extraterrestrials. What they find is far beyond what they could have imagined.
After a false ending involving the arrival of three small spacecraft at a secret landing base built on the far side of Devil’s Tower, the mother ship arrives, apparently to everyone’s great surprise and performs an intergalactic version of “Dueling Banjos” with a man at a large electronic keyboard. Although we are told that there is an actual conversation taking place here, we never learn what is being said or who on Earth can translate it. That’s okay, though—these are things we simply accept.
Following that, the ship’s hatch opens and dozens of abductees from the past thirty years or more come shambling out, as do some of the aliens themselves. Once again instead of hearkening back to alien designs from the past, which included everything from bubble-headed creatures with horribly untrimmed fingernails to insectoid blobs, Spielberg referred to the descriptions given by reputed abductees of small gray humanoids with large heads and dark eyes (bathed in intense light here to disguise the makeup). Despite the awestruck and upbeat tone of the scene, they’re still a bit unsettling and their leader, with his long, thin arms, is downright frightening. But he does seem to know those Italian hand signals, so the joke’s on me.
More disturbing is the question of the volunteers—if they are volunteers—who enter the ship at the scene’s end. Was this arranged beforehand like a prisoner exchange? Are some of the extraterrestrials staying here? Are we just handing over sacrifices or experimental subjects? We don’t really know what happened to those earlier abductees aboard the ship or what will become of them now back on Earth—what if they’re sleeper agents?
Well, perhaps these are questions that are best left unanswered, too.
In the original theatrical release, the film ends as Roy enters the ship and is enveloped by the light before it takes off. But given the clout Spielberg earned with Jaws and the outrageous success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind during its initial run, Columbia offerred him another $2 million to go back and finish the film the way he originally planned. The result was the home video release of The Special Edition, which soon became the official version. It’s too bad, really. The original film ended on a note of mystery and magic—we didn’t know what would happen to Roy, only that he found his answers, whatever they were, and we left the theater wondering. For the new version, Spielberg shot about ten minutes of the interior of the mother ship, which, though colorful, added very little to the story or the ideas at hand. Worse, he trimmed several earlier scenes which had helped illustrate Roy’s character a bit more fully.
Still, despite that and despite all the unanswered questions, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that has aged very well and remains as relevant and effective—and at times even awe-inspiring today as it did in ‘77. Given the success of The X-Files and books by the likes of Whitley Streiber, it’s a film that raises issues that still clearly captivate us.
And I may just be old, but 35 years after the film’s original release, Douglas Trumbull’s practical special effects here—from the Tinkerbell UFO to the mother ship— still put CGI to shame.