‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ Still Leaves Us in Awe 40 Years Later

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th poster

On this week’s edition of yes, this movie really is that old, we have Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Released back in 1977, it is now being re-released in a new 4K remastered version in honor of its 40th anniversary. I first watched it on laserdisc at a friend’s house back in the 80’s, and I remember being somewhat traumatized by it as there were scenes which proved to be quite scary. I have since watched the film several times, but this 40th anniversary re-release allowed me to see it on the big screen for the first time. Suffice to say, this is the way you should view this particular Spielberg classic.

The film begins with strange discoveries being made in various parts of the world which include the appearance of Army airplanes reported to have gone missing back in the 1940’s, a lost cargo ship which has reappeared in the Gobi Desert for no discernable reason, and witnesses living in India are found singing a five-tone musical phrase which is revealed to be the distinctive sounds of UFO’s. Meanwhile, out in Indiana, Ray Neary a blue-collar worker, husband and father to three very loud kids, is working late at night after a large-scale power outage takes place, and he finds himself having a very close encounter with a UFO, one which lightly burns his face with its bright lights. From there, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about these alien visitors to where he gets left with subliminal messages he is desperate to find answers for.

Throughout the decades, there have been countless movies dealing with human beings and their first contact with extra-terrestrials, many of which feature the last remnants of humanity fighting off an alien invasion determined to wipe them out with extreme prejudice. As I got older, I came to realize how rare it is to have a science fiction movie which deals with aliens in a highly intelligent way. Among them are Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” Spielberg’s “E.T.,” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” which was one of the very best movies of 2016. Even rarer these days is the motion picture which leaves you in an extended state of wonder and awe from start to finish and even after you leave the theater.

Even 40 years after its release, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” still has an immense power to enthrall us as its characters come into contact with something they have longed to see. There is nothing about it which comes across as unintentionally laughable, and while technology has evolved to a whole other level since the 1970’s, this movie feels timeless in its exploration of possibilities and discoveries. It also works on many different levels in that it is funny, scary, thrilling, and deeply emotional.

This film is especially unique on Spielberg’s resume as it is one he directed and also wrote the screenplay for. It would also mark the last time he would direct his own screenplay until he made “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” in 2001. As a result, there should be no doubt of just how personal this film is to him. It turns out he wanted to make this one before “Jaws,” but he didn’t have the commercial clout at the time to get the budget he wanted. Of course, when “Jaws” came out, this changed forever.

Spielberg has said “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is not actually a science fiction film, and watching it again has me agreeing with him completely. Yes, it does feature aliens and UFO’s, but they are not really the point. Also, this film takes place in a reality we all know and relate to. “Close Encounters” does not take place in some future dystopian world, but instead one we all inhabit as the main characters are regular people working regular jobs and supporting their families. They don’t want to see UFO’s, but they did, and now they cannot and will not deny their existence. Throughout this movie, we remain in the human universe and we never enter an alien one, and this is very important to point out here.

“Close Encounters” also deals with stories which would become a hallmark of future Spielberg films and productions such as “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” and “Poltergeist” among others. Seeing the government conspire to keep this alien visitation a secret is presented in a way which feels not only realistic, but also very possible to pull off back in the 1970’s. But he also shows how the truth of things cannot be kept a secret forever, and, like Ray Neary, we want to see this all the way to the end because we won’t stop and until we get answers to fulfill our curiosities.

When it comes to the actors, Spielberg really just lets them loose here. He doesn’t direct them as much as he lets them run wild, and I don’t just mean the kids who are a noisy bunch as presented here. Richard Dreyfuss is perfectly cast as Ray Neary as he brings a crazed and enthusiastic energy to the role of a man who has seen things he wasn’t supposed to see, and he is not in a position to unlearn what he has learned. Even as Ray’s actions increasingly alienate him from his wife and kids, Dreyfuss makes us empathize with his plight as he is caught up in something he cannot turn his back on.

Melinda Dillon is equally wonderful as Jillian Guiler, another character who, along with her fearless son Barry (Cary Guffey), experiences a close encounter of her own. She also suffers the indignity of her son being kidnapped by aliens, but she is eventually reunited with him in the movie’s last half. It may sound like I’m giving plot points away here, but I’m not because Dillon’s performance is such an emotionally fulfilling one to witness as she takes Jillian through the stages of fright, grief, desolation, and eventually joy and happiness. She makes you experience these emotions with her, and seeing her smile when Barry reappears is a moment of pure elation.

Spielberg’s casting of filmmaker Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, a French government scientist, was truly inspired. Along with Bob Balaban who plays David Laughlin, Lacombe’s assistant and interpreter, he portrays a government official who brings sanity to a situation which has other government officials responding to in a panic to where the quick answer is cover everything up and keep the number of witnesses to a bare minimum. Truffaut brings a strong level of thoughtfulness and wonderment to his character as Lacombe shows an openness to first contact others would not be quick to embrace. While military officers are eager to keep Ray and Jillian out of the area, Lacombe tries to make them see they were invited to be here.

Many images from “Close Encounters” will forever remain burned into my consciousness. The most prominent image of all is when young Barry opens the front door where an alien ship hovers outside, waiting to make contact with someone, anyone. This is still the defining image of who he not just as a filmmaker, but as a human being. Spielberg’s eagerness to make contact with aliens from another galaxy is no secret, and here’s hoping a UFO does make contact with him in his lifetime. Better they meet him than a certain person who is currently occupying the White House.

I think people these days who are seeing “Close Encounters” for the first time might say it takes too long to get to the last half where humans finally get to communicate with aliens. But like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” this film is more about the journey than the final destination. Spielberg wants us to question what we believe and how far we will go to get answers to questions which have plagued us for an infinite amount of time, and we share the awe of the characters once those answers are delivered to us here. And it’s not just that the characters get answers here, they truly earn them as well.

This is also one of those films its director couldn’t stop tinkering with over the years. Ridley Scott couldn’t leave “Blade Runner” alone years after its release, and Oliver Stone continued to tinker with his dream project “Alexander” to where the final cut he gave us still doesn’t feel final. As Spielberg was finishing up “Close Encounters,” Columbia Pictures was in dire straits financially and begged the filmmaker to release his pet project sooner rather than later. What came out in 1977 wasn’t his complete vision, and he eventually got to make a special edition of the film which was released in 1980. The 4K restoration of “Close Encounters” is essentially a combination of both versions, but the scenes with Ray Neary exploring the inside of the mothership have been cut out. Spielberg has said over and over he never should have taken us inside the ship, and I completely agree. While Spielberg provides the characters with many answers, there are still some things better left to the imagination.

Seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the Cinerama Dome afforded me the opportunity to see the movie in its most desirable format. The audience I saw it with was left spellbound at what unfolded, and this says so much about this movie’s staying power. Just when I think I have become so jaded and embittered a filmgoer as studios continue in their desperate search for the next big franchise, a motion picture like this comes along to remind us filmmakers still have the power to leave us in a state of sheer wonderment. It feels like we have had an overabundance of movie anniversaries lately to where these celebrations feel more like a ploy to get more money out of our pockets. But this particular anniversary is one worth acknowledging as it continually reaffirms the power of cinema to truly transport to another time and place and, in the process, rescue us from the real world even if it’s only for a temporary time.

The only thing which bugs me about “Close Encounters” these days is Ray’s decision to leave his family behind and travel with the aliens. Essentially, he is presented with the same question Captain Decker is faced with in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture;” Would you leave everything and everyone you have ever known behind just to explore another world and dimension? Seeing Ray getting on board the ship made me wonder how his family would have reacted to this decision, and it plagues my mind long after the end credits have finished. Then again, Spielberg did make this film before he had any kids of his own. Had he made it after he became a father, there’s no doubt Ray would have made a different decision. Still, one could not blame Spielberg or Ray for being tempted to go. I certainly would be tempted.

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