Years before theater audiences were introduced to a friendly little alien with a glowing finger and a penchant for Reece’s Pieces, director Steven Spielberg offered another compelling tale about visitors from another planet. Having recently put his name on the map with a little summer blockbuster called Jaws, he would switch to the science fiction genre in 1977. The result was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and audiences would never look at the skies (or a clump of mashed potatoes, for that matter) in quite the same way.
Roy Neary is an average joe from Muncie, Indiana. He’s an electrician with a nice family, a nice house and a good job. But all that changes after the town starts to experience electrical blackouts and surges. Stopping to look at a map while heading for the blackout’s putative source, Roy discovers that what he thinks is a car behind him is something far more eerie when its “headlights” rise into the air over his truck, hover, then zip away.
Thus begins Roy’s obsession with “close encounters.” In the course of his mania Roy loses his job, even though the evidence – his half-sunburned face, local newspaper reports – proves he’s not making things up. Things go bad at home as Roy neglects his wife and kids for his UFO research, but he can’t stop.
He meets others who’ve had similar encounters, like Jillian, a single mom whose little son Barry is called to and finally kidnapped onto a UFO. Roy also meets Claude Lacombe, a French researcher played by filmmaker Francois Truffaut, who theorizes that the key to communicating with the aliens lies in music.
Scientists and UFO boosters eventually gather in Wyoming, near Devil’s Tower, where the aliens are to land with great ceremony. Roy and the other believers must first see through a US Government cover-up involving a story about a nerve gas leak, but then are rewarded with a momentous finale.
Roy, like other Spielberg heroes, is a man who hasn’t quite grown up, who comes to the realization that no matter what other people say, your own dreams are worth following. Reinforcing this moral are references to “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the song from Pinocchio, which plays on the Neary TV at the start and figures in the big finish too.
Together with Star Wars, which was released the same year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind set new standards for special effects. Viewers would no longer have to suspend their disbelief to accept rubber-suited “aliens” and “spaceships” dangled from strings. From here on out, sci-fi films would give us special effects that looked like the real thing, whether it was outer space or the center of the Earth. We’d see through the eyes of someone like Roy, and really believe we weren’t alone.
In a gesture toward the Tarantino future of filmmaking, pop-culture references dotted the film. These touches, both mainstream – like Days Of Our Lives on the TV and the kids eating cereal and playing with toys of the time, and counterculture – Jerry Garcia among the chanting crowds of ET believers in India – added to the film’s naturalism and the seeming plausibility of the story.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Close Encounters of the Third Kind won for Best Cinematography. But it went through many changes over the years. Three years after its release, in 1980, a 132-minute “Special Edition” came out, with added scenes that showed the alien spaceship’s interior. This version was also re-edited, with a tightened up second act that had somewhat less of “crazy” Roy shoveling dirt and sculpting mountains from mashed potatoes. A network television version combined aspects of the original and the “Special Edition,” creating further confusion. At last, Spielberg guided the construction of 1999’s “Definitive Director’s Edition,” which represented his “final,” standardized vision that audiences would be seeing from then on. Whew!
Regardless of which incarnation you happened to view, we would love to hear all of your thoughts on Close Encounters of the Third Kind in our comments section, as we tip our hats to Steven Spielberg for an endearing sci-fi classic that still resonates to this day.