“We didn't choose this place! We didn't choose these people! They were invited!”
There is no other director whose films I’ve given the highest rating to more than Steven Spielberg. Being born in the 80’s meant I experienced some of his best films at a very young age: The Indiana Jones trilogy, E.T., and Jurassic Park. I cherish each of these films and the experience of seeing them for the first time are engraved in my memory. I might have been too easily manipulated by his films at that age, but it’s impossible for me not to view most of them as masterpieces. I didn’t watch Jaws until I was much older and that film blew me away, so I was hoping for a similar experience with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I had never got around seeing until now, but had read fantastic reviews. Fresh off the success of Jaws, many were expecting Spielberg’s next film about an alien encounter to be even more terrifying. But Spielberg had different plans and he wanted his film to stand out from all the previous B-movie alien invasion films. The concept was quite groundbreaking for the time considering his treatment of aliens here weren’t what audiences were expecting. The only other film that had taken a similar approach prior to this was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Spielberg’s film opens in a Mexican desert where a strange sighting has taken place. Several planes that had gone missing during the World War in the mid 40’s have mysteriously reappeared in the middle of the desert in excellent conditions. A French man named Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is interviewing the locals who discovered the planes with the help of an interpreter named David Laughlin (Bob Balaban). One of the locals is sunburned and shocked as he confesses that the Sun came out at night. The next scene takes place in Muncie, Indiana where a young boy named Barry (Cary Guffey) is mysteriously awakened in the middle of the night by his electric toys that all of a sudden are turned on. He walks out of the house following bright lights from the sky, while his mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) runs after him. The entire area is going through an inexplicable power outage. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) works for the power company and is sent to answer a service call. On his way he experiences a UFO sighting and while chasing the lights he nearly runs over Barry who was standing in the middle of the road. The small group of people that were gathered in the area became entranced by what they’d just experienced. Roy returns home to tell his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and children about what he saw, but they think he has lost his mind. Everyone that was exposed to the lights ended up sunburned, sharing similar visions of a strange mountain image, and humming a five tone melody. The film then follows closely Roy’s obsession and the effect that his supernatural encounter has on him and his family.
By opening with these strange sightings, Spielberg leaves no room for doubt that these confrontations with UFO’s are real. The emotions that are evoked from these scenes have more to do with awe and wonder than they do with suspense or fear, which makes it stand out from most of his other films. Once again, John William’s score plays a key role in the movie and builds on that sense of amazement. Once Spielberg gets the actual encounters out of the way, he is allowed to focus the story on the family dynamics and that is where Dreyfuss’ performance takes center stage. His character behaves in a strange way and it’s hard to root for someone who is willing to leave his family behind to follow his visions (there is a wacky scene in which he attempts to build a model of the mountain in his living room with dirt and plants he has gathered from the yard), but somehow he still manages to be engaging. The child actor, Cary Guffey, is also very believable and in a way, we the audience, are in awe the same way as his character is. Melinda Dillon, who was nominated for her supporting performance, stands out here as well. The cast delivers, but it was Zsigmond’s cinematography which was outstanding and deserving of the film’s only Academy Award win. The build-up might have not been as interesting as the final thirty minute payoff in Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, but it more than makes up for it during those awesome final minutes. I imagine that if I’d seen this as a kid I would’ve loved it, but today it feels a bit outdated and underwhelming at times. I enjoyed this sci-fi movie, but it doesn’t rank close to my favorite Spielberg films. I fell for his more family friendly and emotionally manipulative E.T. which came out only five years after this.