Film & Television

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Forty Years Later

1977 was a very good year for star-struck kids. In May, a young filmmaker named George Lucas introduced them to Luke, Leia, Han and a galaxy far, far away in the first film of the enormously successful Star Wars franchise. Six months later, another young filmmaker, Lucas’s friend Steven Spielberg, brought alien life here to Earth.

The late Vincent Canby of The New York Times was one of many critics who found reasons to rave. “Steven Spielberg’s giant, spectacular Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which opened at the Ziegfeid Theater yesterday, is the best — the most elaborate — 1950s science fiction movie ever made, a work that borrows its narrative shape and its concerns from those earlier films, but enhances them with what looks like the latest developments in movie and space technology. If, indeed, we are not alone, it would be fun to believe that the creatures who may one day visit us are of the order that Mr. Spielberg has conceived — with, I should add, a certain amount of courage and an entirely straight face.”

With dazzling special effects that surprisingly still hold up today, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was produced for just $20 million but earned more than $330 million at the box office. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning a special achievement award for sound effects editing, as well as best cinematography. Perhaps more significantly, Close Encounters has influenced every depiction of extraterrestrials ever since.

Forty years later, this science fiction masterpiece is back in the theaters, in a remastered director’s cut. As convenient as it may be to watch the movie at home on demand or on Blu-ray, this is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. The bigger, the better, as a matter of fact.

Spielberg, who had already made a name for himself thanks to his terrifying 1975 blockbuster Jaws, originally planned to make a movie focused less on aliens and more on a sinister government cover-up, inspired by Watergate. After multiple rewrites, the story many of us grew up with emerged.

(Please be warned. On the statistically improbable off chance you haven’t seen Close Encounters, there are spoilers ahead.)

The movie actually has three story lines that run parallel. An international scientific team (working remarkably well together) is investigating a confluence of unexplained phenomena. Lost World War II aircraft miraculously reappear. Disparate communities chant a common 5-note tune. A cargo ship is found in the middle of a desert.

Meanwhile, a small group of civilians in Muncie, Indiana witnesses an extraterrestrial light show that changes their lives. Conspicuous among them, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) is an electric company repairman, husband, and father of three. He’s called out to work during an abrupt blackout. That night, he encounters and follows a group of UFOs, emerging with a sunburned face and compulsive behavior that causes him to lose his job first and then his family.

Jillian (Melinda Dillon), the single mother of three-year old Barry, has her own connection to the supernatural events of that evening. Her son is drawn to the lights when they first appear, and another night, after a particularly harrowing scene in their home, he’s abducted.

Both Roy and Jillian become obsessed with visions of a mysterious structure. He sculpts it out of shaving cream, mashed potatoes, and dirt and shrubbery. She draws and paints it over and over, convinced it will somehow lead her to her son.

The structure turns out to be Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. There, tipped off by an alien message, the scientists have built the world’s most high tech immigration center. In order to keep the project a secret, they’ve orchestrated an elaborate diversion, evacuating miles of farmers and cattlemen with the threat of a toxic nerve gas disaster. Roy and Jillian, who had met briefly the night of the UFO sighting, reconnect in Wyoming. Compelled by otherworldly forces, they work together to evade the authorities and welcome the visitors.

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