When Star Wars made its debut in 1977 its success created a resurgence in science fiction films that lasted for years. One of the first films to sate our appetites for more was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, wunderkind director Steven Spielberg’s followup to his own megahit Jaws. The audience was ready for a thought provoking science fiction film and we were teased for months with a nondescript TV short trailer for Close Encounters featuring not much more than a symbolic flat topped butte and a distinct melody of five musical notes. Those five notes would carry me for months until the film finally arrived in theaters.
With only the teasers to go by and the knowledge that the movie was about aliens, I puzzled over the very meaning of the title for weeks. What did they mean by Close Encounter? And what the hell was a Third Kind, to say nothing about what was even a First or Second kind?
Not quite Star Wars It was nonetheless a huge hit and within a short time everyone knew what the title referred to. As much as the special effects reigned triumphant and was one of the reasons it garnered praise and appeal, this movie is very much a sentimental one. As ironic as it sounds seeing it is a movie about aliens, it’s the human element that raised this movie above the deluge of SF movies that followed. It is every bit as much the story about everyday suburbanite Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) as it is a story about alien creatures.
What I watched in that theater took me for quite a ride. Sure Star Wars had cool aliens and some jaw dropping spaceships, but nothing prepared me for the realism in Close Encounters. While undoubtedly science fiction, it also gave a more or less realistic take on what an actual alien first meeting would be like. It was spooky, eerie and in many ways surreal. But it was genuine and thoughtful without ostentatious space battles, gadgets or weaponry.
The movie immediately sets it’s low key approach with completely silent opening credits which slowly transforms into an arid windswept Mexican desert where a group of evidently official mystery men are led to a squadron fully intact WWII era warplanes sitting on the dunes. As the 70’s were ripe with conspiracy theories and cryptozoology oddities, tales from the Bermuda Triangle swirled in the media and I knew the significance of ‘Flight 19’.
As other lost-in-time artifacts appear in across the Earth – always with the group of mystery men closely behind – the aliens first appear in a series of UFO sightings one night over Indiana. Roy is one of a handful of people that are first hand witnesses to the phenomena which the government tries to cover up. After his encounter Roy is besieged by visions of a particular butte and becomes fixated with its significance, eventually surrendering everything including his family in search of answers to questions whose essence even he isn’t sure of. Accompanied by a single mom desperately seeking her abducted child (Melinda Dillon), Roy defies all attempts to stop him from reaching his goal, whatever that may be.
All he knows is that his answer lies at the foot of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and once there he finds the mystery men have set up an ornate landing strip for a preordained first contact. Laden with cameras, microphones and every sensor imaginable, a hive of scientist await the aliens, with their main communication tool being a music synthesizer and a giant panoramic color board of lights. In the end Roy finds his destiny to be the envoy and species bridging catalyst the aliens seek.
While Star Wars and its ilk can give provide great escapist space fantasy, Close Encounters is emotional, speculative (yet still fun) grounded science fiction.
I was blissfully ignorant of François Truffaut‘s film legacy at the time and just thought he was merely some good French actor but the famed director’s inclusion here as one of the mystery men is yet another fine touch to the film. I also enjoyed the fact that the film that shied away from portraying an idyllic home and family environment. Aside from the messy rooms, dirty laundry, and sometimes obnoxious kids, the film makes it a point that Roy will even give up his wife (Teri Garr) and kids for his obsession.
Viewer should be aware that there have been several versions released over the years, some with one particular addition of note. Some later editions feature an additional final scene in which we get a glimpse of the interior of the alien mothership. Like Spielberg himself regretting the addition, I thought it best be left to the audience’s imagination and should never have been filmed at all.
There is one last side note I’d like to mention regarding this movie. I had the chance to drop into the Udvar-Hazy Center which is one of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum branches in Washington D.C. While not as famous as the Smithsonian in the downtown National Mall, the lesser known Udvar-Hazy has a lot fantastic historical aircraft worthy of a visit and tucked away in a back room is none other than the model used for the mothership in the movie. As immense as it seems in the movie the model is a modest few feet in diameter. But it’s the few household odds and ends that the modelmakers threw in the intricate patterns that make this model an especially fun display. Check it out next time you’re near Dulles airport as the museum is just a few minutes away.