Movie Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Few men or women have left as indelible a mark on the history of cinema as Steven Spielberg. His name has entered film mythology, a hallmark of credibility and artistic endeavour. Not every film he’s directed has been a bonafide classic, sure, but at his best, there is perhaps no other filmmaker who can evoke a sense of childlike wonder from his audience as well as the Cincinnati-born director.

Two years after the inimitable Jaws, Spielberg made one such awe-inspiring movie, a film which dozens of directors have cited as inspiraiton: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Centred on a subject which most know is close to Spielberg’s heart – that of extra-terrestrial existence – Close Encounters follows Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary, a state electrical line worker who sees, and is engaged by, UFOs while investigating a power cut. While chasing after the craft, he nearly runs over Jillian Guiler’s (Melinda Dillon) son Barry, who is abducted the next night. The pair become increasingly obsessed with the aliens, and appear to have had an image imprinted in their mind: that of an unknown, tower-like shape which overruns their subconscious…

Identifiable to many for that exact same image, Close Encounters isn’t really a film about aliens at all. Sure, they form the central plot point, but they’re the film’s MacGuffin, largely used for expositon until the film’s final reel. For Spielberg’s movie is, in fact, one about obsession and fervour. Dreyfuss’ Neary is a man driven to insanity by the image he sees, famously carving it into his mashed potato at the dinner table, his eyes frenzied by the all-consuming obsession which is gradually overwhelming him. We spend long sequences berating Neary as he loses grip on his job, family and sanity for the sake of a parasitic fixation he is as powerless to explain as he is to escape. Dillon’s Jillian is similarly rapt by this vision, drawing endless pictures of it and covering her house’s walls with them, but after the abduction of her son we empathise with her more; she’s the classic figure of a mother trying anything to find her child.

It’s a credit to both Dillon and Dreyfuss that we believe in these characters at all. Dreyfuss is especially good in that classically Spielbergian role of an ordinary man pushed to extraordinary lengths, which would go on to be embodied in years to come by Tom Hanks. Dreyfuss’ tormented insides seem to force themselves out of every pore of his unkempt exterior, made especially noticeable when placed against François Truffaut’s collected, academic UFO investigator Claude Lacombe. Truffaut, himself a fabulous director and pioneer of France’s Nouvelle Vague movement, ensures Lacombe isn’t just a cold suit, however: in the final reel, wherein the spaceships land, Lacombe is just as astonished as everyone else.

It’s this final reel which has become synonymous with sci-fi since its release in 1977. The craft themselves, spinning freely and flashing with myriad lights, are dazzling to look at; Douglas Trumbull’s superb special effects work remains stunningly creative and visually remarkable even four decades on. It’s a reminder of just how powerful SFX can be when used correctly.

Spielberg’s direction, unsurprisingly, is also of a high grade. We experience Roy’s encounter almost entirely from within the confines of his truck as it’s shaken and bombarded by the ship’s lights, and the slow-reveal of the UFO’s drawbridge-like doors coming down remains a staple of many a sci-fi film to this day. He captures Roy’s fascination with the mysterious shape brilliantly, contrasting the madness of his obsession with an average suburban setting, full of nosey neighbours and kids who won’t behave: it helps keep the location of events grounded when the plot spirals out into the stars.

Yet this isn’t up there with Spielberg’s very finest movies. Much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, its influence is undeniable, and its visuals are magnificent – Trumbull worked on both, it’s interesting to note – but there’s a slight disjointedness in places, very uncommon in a Spielberg film. The narrative is deftly handled, the plot moved on without drab exposition, but there are times where Close Encounters doesn’t seem able to decide whether it’s a think-piece about human desires and obsessions or a film where humans meet aliens. The final third – where Roy and Jillian discover what the shape they’re seeing is, and set off to find it – is the most entertaining part, but it marks a big tonal shift which, despite masterful direction and solid acting, doesn’t entirely cohere.

Yet much of the criticism we can level at Spielberg’s film is washed away by that feeling of wonder which is his signature. A nearly wordless final half-hour, mainly based on synthesised musical notes, is astounding, and it’s remarkable that the director can make us believe in the seemingly impossible: Close Encounters, perhaps more than any of his other films, is impervious to cinematic cynicism. As ever with Spielberg, we’re left agog as the credits roll.

Verdict: Although narratively not nearly as cohesive or inspired as Spielberg’s very best films, Close Encounters is a landmark in directorial vision and sci-fi effects. A hellish vision of one man’s psychoses set against heavenly images of spacecraft, it’s a brilliantly conceived film, albeit one which lacks the storytelling panache of E.T. or Jurassic Park. For its faults, the final reel will leave you spellbound.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. A writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

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