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Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Premise: The film tells the story of a working class family man (Richard Dreyfuss) who has an encounter with a UFO and becomes obsessed with trying to comprehend what he has seen, eventually running off to discover the truth.

What Works: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a unique film in a variety of ways. First, it was a science fiction film released before science fiction was mainstream or marketable. Hitting theaters just months after the original Star Wars, Close Encounters demonstrated that the genre could have mass appeal. Unlike Star Wars, Close Encounters is almost pure science fiction and is closer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than George Lucas’ space fantasy. Second, the film places character as its centerpiece. The aliens don’t actually show up until the very end and instead the picture places its focus on Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his growing obsession with extraterrestrial visitors. Where a lot of science fiction films are marked by pyrotechnics, poor acting, spotty writing, and obsess over the minutia of their own mythology, Close Encounters takes an intimate view of its subject and carefully constructs a metaphor of spiritual awakening around the UFO phenomenon. Following that, a third way Close Encounters is unique is that is combines the kind of mass appeal that Spielberg is known for with the very intimate scope and personal themes that came to define the New Hollywood era. Close Encounters uses a lot of Judeo-Christian imagery and this is a film about revelation, discovery, and new beginnings. Neary sees lights in the sky and is marked with a burn, experiences visions and obsessions that disrupt his life, eventually climbing a mountain and connecting with the otherworldly beings. The symbols aren’t heavy handed but they are there and the film uses them as signposts to point viewers towards the themes of revelation and consciousness, similar to what Fritz Lang accomplished in Metropolis. Although Close Encounters shares this exploration of internal struggles of faith, familiar to New Hollywood filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Paul Schrader, there is also a Spielbergian optimism. This is a post-Vietnam and post-Watergate film, including government cover-up and the possible threat of an alien invasion, but the extraterrestrials of Close Encounters turn out to be docile and represent hope for a new age, a bit like the ending of Apocalypse Now but with a decisively more hopeful tone. Aside from the thematic issues, the film itself is unique in its use of sound, especially John Williams score, which is one of the composer’s best. The score includes a five-note signature that becomes the basis of communication between human beings and extra terrestrials. The universality of music among human beings is the olive branch through which humans and otherworldly beings are able to connect and begin a process of communication and communion.

What Doesn’t: Those accustomed to the slam-bang entertainment of most contemporary science fiction adventures may be turned off by the slower and more thoughtful approach of Close Encounters.

DVD Extras: Close Encounters is also significant in that it was one of the first films to undergo significant reediting after its initial release and introduce the concept of “special editions.” The 30th Anniversary Edition DVD includes all three drafts of the film including the original 1977 theatrical version, the 1980 special edition, and the 1998 director’s cut. The evolution of the film is interesting to watch, as items are added, discarded, and then sometimes restored for the final cut. The set also includes trailers, a documentary, and an interview with Spielberg.

Bottom Line: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is unique within the New Hollywood era and within the science fiction genre. The film combines traditional Judeo-Christian imagery with science fiction in deep and meaningful ways that makes for a picture that is as speculative about outer space as it is about mankind’s social and spiritual future. 

Episode: #204 (September 14, 2008)