“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a flying saucer.” With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s fourth directorial feature, UFOs are what Steven sought to show to the world, and that they weren’t something to fear. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a film from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we are discussing Close Encounters of the Third Kind: one of Steven’s greatest works, and a cultural artifact that represents a brief period in our history when we still had enough wide-eyed optimism to look to the stars as a place for curiosity and comfort.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Close Encounters represents a passion project of Spielberg’s that had been ruminating in his mind for over a decade. From a very young age, Steven had been fascinated by other worlds. An early memory of his is when his father took him to see a late-night meteor shower, and he was a lifelong UFO enthusiast. At age 17, he directed an amateur film called Firelight in his hometown about UFOs and alien abduction. Close Encounters is essentially a major budget, professional realization of Firelight, and as such, it represents Steven’s most personal work up to that time.
Development for Close Encounters goes back to 1973. When Steven was hired to direct Jaws, the project was put on hold, and after that film’s incredible success, Steven wielded such a level of authority that Columbia gave him total creative control of the film. Several writers contributed to the writing process, but Spielberg was given sole credit to the script. With an esoteric title based on UFO classification and enormous discretion afforded to Spielberg, Close Encounters was an enormous risk for Columbia, and the result was one of our greatest works of science fiction.
Close Encounters stars Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical worker from Indiana who witnesses a UFO one evening, and subsequently becomes obsessed with finding them again. Subconscious signals from the planetary visitors compel him and others to meet at Devil’s Head monument in Wyoming, where the U.S. government has evacuated the area to prepare for a landing. When Roy reaches the location, dozens of UFOs fly in, as well as a massive mother ship. Humans and extra-terrestrials meet for the first time, and Roy joins them as they depart.
A major theme of Close Encounters is a celebration of child-like curiosity and wonder, with an open mind and a youthful spirit being essential to progress. This is exhibited symbolically in the iconic moment when the little boy Barry opens his front door to the bright lights coming from outside, while his mother cowers in terror. Roy Neary also exhibits this quite powerfully: though a father himself, he remains the most playful and youthful member of his household, and it’s because of his open mind that he is the one chosen to leave earth and exchange cultures.
After working with Spielberg shortly prior on Jaws, Dreyfuss is perfectly cast in the lead role. His buoyant energy and child-like vigor render him a fitting choice to convey a relatable everyman with just the right level of boyish curiosity to be receptive to fearless investigation of the unknown. Dreyfuss also effectively takes us through a full spectrum of emotions as he experiences his mental breakdown. An example of this is the memorable mashed potatoes scene when Neary can’t even get through a meal without seeing shapes and scaring his family to tears.
In the collapse of Roy’s family as he embarks on his obsessive quest for answers, we see a first major glimpse of Spielberg’s career-spanning theme of familial breakups and divorce. A child of divorce himself, it’s an event that radically affected his adult life, having lost the father for many years that first instilled in him a love for the cosmos. With this in mind, you can see quite clearly how Roy represents his own father. Divorce and separation is a theme we will be discussing at length as this series progresses, most notably when we get to E.T., this film’s spiritual successor.
After creating one of the most famous musical accompaniments in the history of film with Jaws, composer John Williams’ role is much more crucial on Close Encounters, as music functions as a major plot point with the aliens using a 5-tone interval as their signature greeting. Special effects also have a much more elevated role, as Steven recruited Douglas Trumbull of 2001: A Space Odyssey as visual effects supervisor. The sights still hold up as staggering to this today, and they highlight the value of practical effects in an age when the art has virtually gone to the wayside.
The film is rather unique in that the majority of its run time involves a long, protracted exercise in delayed gratification. Spielberg instills in the audience the same sense of hysteria that Roy experiences as he desperately seeks answers for his confusion. Once we reach Devil’s Head, however, the payoff is huge. The sense of euphoria and joy that Steven conveys with the mothership’s landing is so layered, detailed and powerful, that there were reports during the film’s release that filmgoers had an almost religious reaction, with many viewers exiting in tears.
As many experienced Close Encounters in this way, many have pointed out the film’s allegorical nature to spirituality in parallel to Steven’s own religiosity as a member of the Jewish faith. The film depicts a small group of people from all over the world, a select few who have been chosen (can be viewed as God’s chosen people, or “the elect”) to meet with a higher power on a mountain, which is comparable to Mount Sinai. They experience communication with an entity that is not exactly direct, and when they stand in its presence, they experience profound ecstasy.
Close Encounters is also set apart in the realm of science fiction in its depiction of aliens as not planet-conquering warlords, but as a source of kinship and opportunity. Written in an era shortly following Watergate, Steven intentionally wrote Close Encounters to reflect the public’s perception of the government as deceitful and conspiratorial in nature, while also urging a receptive mind to other cultures. If he could show you that you could be open and welcoming to people from another planet, maybe you could be to people from another country as well?
As Steven puts it, the director he was during the production of Close Encounters was much more optimistic and naïve, leading him to take risks and choices he would never make later in his career with the perspective of a producer. I’m so thankful he did, because Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the most prescient and impactful science fiction films ever created, and it stands alone in its ability to evoke both feelings of warmth and catharsis about topics of science and progress, and not just characters in particular. Keep looking to the stars everyone.
After two astonishing highs with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven had nowhere else to go but down. Next week we’ll be discussing one of Steven’s career lows with 1941. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as for rental from digital retailers. See you next week.