Released a few months after Star Wars changed the landscape of movies in the autumn of 1977, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind also proved to be a landmark in Sci-Fi cinema. While Sci-Fi movies were typically on the periphery of American movies up to that point in film history, the genre would become a major part of the film industry in the decades to come. Close Encounters channeled the zeitgeist by dramatizing the UFO phenomenon, government cover ups, and a sprinkling of post-hippy revivalism. The Voyager spacecraft was also launched in 1977, destined to explore the solar system and venture beyond it into eternity. A set of recordings aboard the Voyager craft were humanity's first attempt to communicate with another intelligent civilization. Close Encounters also evoked a sense of wonder by emphasizing interstellar communication. Grounded in reality yet surreal and idealistic it achieves a unique tone enhanced by its innovative special effects, inspired casting, and a sense of the uncanny.
As a teenager in Arizona Spielberg made Firelight with help from family and friends. The film was screened at the local movie theater and even got a write up in the local paper. While Firelight was by no means an early version of Close Encounters, it did deal with themes of alien visitation and government conspiracies. Later when Spielberg was directing television for Universal in the early 1970s, he began developing what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Early on considered making a documentary on the UFO subject, but became more intrigued with creating an original story.
Although Spielberg received sole screenwriting credit, many writers worked on an ever evolving script. Spielberg pitched the idea of Close Encounters to studios as a conspiracy thriller about “UFOs and Watergate.” Paul Schrader, later of Taxi Driver fame and many other films, was hired to write the script under the title of Kingdom Come. Available online, the script followed a military officer who was an agent of disinformation on UFOs for the Air Force who would have his own life changing encounter. Schrader wanted to tell a modern version of Paul the Apostle resulting in a cerebral and serious script. Somewhat dry and repetitive in the middle, Kingdom Come ends with an obvious nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spielberg rejected the script outright; it goes without saying their creative sensibilities were polar opposites. Yet many elements of the Schrader script found their way into the final film. Other writers were brought including frequent Spielberg collaborators Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins (The Sugarland Express) who helped polish the dialogue during production.
During the hectic filming of Jaws at Martha’s Vineyard, Spielberg continued developing the story, deciding to make his protagonist an everyman instead of a military officer. Richard Dreyfuss was cast as Roy Neary, an electrician living a suburban existence who has a life changing close encounter. Teri Garr was cast as Roy’s wife Ronnie. French filmmaker Francois Truffaut was cast as the UFO investigator Lacombe. Others in the cast included Melinda Dillon as single mom Jillian Guiler, Bob Balaban as translator David Laughlin, Cary Guffey, and Lance Henricksen. Most of the film was shot in Mobile, Alabama, including an abandoned hangar used for the final sequence. The 2016 documentary Who Are You People? reveals many production stories from locals who worked on the film in Mobile.
The opening 20 minutes highlight Spielberg’s ability to blend the extraordinary with the mundane. The opening scene set at the Sonoran Desert in Mexico follows an investigation of a UFO sighting followed by the discovery of airplanes originating from the Second World War. The sequence also sets up the theme of communication with Laughlin (Balaban) translating from Spanish to English and French. Then the film transitions to an air traffic control tower in Indiana (shot in Palmdale, California) as they receive dramatic reports of UFO sightings. Spielberg managed to make banal environments compelling by focusing on the faces, light, and sound (the scene was filmed months before principal photography began to reassure Columbia Studios the concept could work).
The next scene takes place the home of Jillian Guiler (Dillon) follows her her toddler son Barry. As toys and appliances start going haywire, Barry appears to be drawn towards some sort of force. He runs away and Jillian goes searching for him. Meanwhile, at the Neary household Spielberg paints a portrait of suburban malaise. On a weekend evening Roy appears more concerned with his train set than helping his son learn fractions. Ronnie must keep things in order and discipline the bickering kids. The house feels cramped and claustrophobic, a phantasmal vision of the average family. At the same a relatable and realistic depiction of an suburban household, Truffaut especially admired these scenes for their intimacy within an epic movie. Spielberg would become known as the chronicler of white suburbia and these scenes would be replayed most famously in E.T.
After a power outage (caused by the spaceships) sends Roy out to work on restoring power he experiences a dramatic close encounter. The use of sound, lighting, and visual effects are a marvel, a classic Spielberg moment perhaps even more so today since CGI was not yet available. After the encounter Roy’s life is forever changed, similar to the encounter in Schrader script. Lost in a psychic mania after the counter, Roy drags his confused family back to the location later that night. But neglecting his work costs him his job - and much more.
Close Encounters is structured so the very personal stories of the main characters play out amongst the global intrigue surrounding the phenomena. As the UFO investigators make new discoveries, including an ocean liner found in the Gobi Desert and locating the landing site at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming - everyone starts to be drawn to that location. Meanwhile Roy’s family life continues to unravel culminating with him ripping his yard apart to build a physical manifestation of his visions. In a scene reminiscent of a classic horror movie, the aliens abduct Barry. While the visitors are ultimately revealed to be benign, taking a child away from their mother does create some narrative/tonal issues! An effective sequence, but somewhat out of tune with the ending unless one interprets it as a misunderstanding?
The dissolution of the Neary family would become a familiar trope to Spielberg films. While these scenes have been parodied many times, they do tap into an underlying darkness woven into the story. As Roy is consumed (against his will) about his encounter the family splinters. The dinner table scene with Ray playing with his mash potatoes signals his breakdown, the camera lingers on the confused faces of Ronnie and his children. As Roy’s behavior becomes more erratic, culminating with him ripping apart his own yard Ronnie decides to leave him. These scenes get to how tenuous the nuclear family can be when put under stress - economically and psychologically.
One could also argue Roy was never meant to be a “family man” because of his child like nature. Modern day viewers would identify Roy as a classic case of “Peter Pan Syndrome,” the adult male unwilling or unable to take on adult responsibilities in favor of a life centered around escapism. One can view Roy’s mania in spiritual terms, a biblical prophet being “called” towards a higher purpose. Or is he rebelling against the expectations of a system? “Me Decade” politics would frown upon adults shirking responsibilities for selfish reasons (women faced even harsher judgments from moralistic pundits). A psychologist would suggest Roy to ignore his erratic impulses and focus on his family, but the universe had other plans. While Spielberg would later express misgivings with a protagonist who abandons their family, the fact of having a man willingly leave his family still feels subversive - even more so for a woman to abandon her family.
Eventually Roy realizes he must go to Wyoming to be present for the landing. Devil’s Tower featured prominently in many Native American oral histories, in many of them the obelisk served as a haven for children being chased by a bear. In one story according to the National Park Service Website, little girls who were being terrorized by a bear took refuge on a rock and it rose into the heavens. The children became star beings (origins of the Pleiades Star Cluster), so the site has always had a cosmic connection. Perhaps it’s no coincidence when the aliens appear at the end many of them resemble little children (all were portrayed by little girls).
Close Encounters is ultimately a spiritual quest. The religious themes woven into the Schrader script evolved into a more contemporary New Age journey of enlightenment for Roy, Jillian, and Lacombe as the story reached its final form. The 1970s were a time of New Age and Self-Help bestsellers, often attributed to sociological factors of the time from the Cold War, Vietnam, social unrest, and other resulting pressures on families and individuals (Star Wars is often viewed in that context). Attempts to communicate with beings outside the Earth channels a certain need that the film allows the viewer to become invested in. There's a human need to be understood as well to understand the mystery, Spielberg manages to make it cinematic and unique.
Spielberg embedded religious imagery and symbolism throughout the film. At the Neary household the children are watching The Ten Commandments which tells the story of Moses and The Exodus, a big budget Hollywood production and forerunner of the modern blockbuster. Different cultures interacting with the UFOs draw connections as seen in Mexico and the sequence filmed in India suggest a more pantheistic theme. The landing sequence is a light and sound show of intergalactic communication. Roy becomes a sort of Moses figure, climbing the mountain to meet the beings and eventually being “chosen” to join them. Before the mysterious group known as the “Mayflower 12” are to board the ship they receive a blessing during a Christian service. Whether one is believer, agnostic, or atheist knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere would compel any thinking person to consider the universe in a new light. The film manages to achieve a cathartic feeling by the end despite some of the narrative anomalies along the way.
The John Williams score adds to the sense of wonder. Remarkedly, Williams had also composed the score for Star Wars about the same time yet both contrast in tone and style. If Star Wars was big and bombastic from the opening to closing titles, the music of Close Encounters is more subtle, tones ranging from mysterious to wondrous. The iconic five notes create a thematic link through the entire score. For the end titles, Williams even wove in the melody from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to reference Pinocchio and the film's theme of transcendence.
Richard Dreyfuss was ideally cast as Neary, providing the child-like personality the role demanded and serving as Spielberg's avatar. Many other actors including Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Steve McQueen. On the DVD Spielberg recalls meeting with McQueen at bar to discuss the script, at one point McQueen excused himself to stop a fight and then came back and finished the meeting. He turned down the role because he could not cry on camera but encouraged Spielberg to move on with a different actor.
Teri Garr as Ronnie continued Spielberg’s early tendency to include problematic wife roles with Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express and Lorraine Gary in Jaws. Ronnie's played as an unsympathetic character but does react the way any normal person would in such a circumstance. Truffaut provides a humanism to the film. Balaban is a faithful confidante to Lacombe. I’ve yet to get a copy of the diary Balaban wrote about his experiences during the production.
The final sequence also highlights the “Spielberg Face” gazing with awe into the sky as the ships land. With the Williams score and neon display of lights the sequence becomes a symphony on film. In the maligned 1980 Special Edition Roy enters the ship but its underwhelming and throws off the rhythm of the ending. The restored version omits the onboard sequence in favor of the mysterious ending of Neary simply entering the craft. In many ways E.T. would serve as a sequel in spirit to Close Encounters, with Spielberg reducing the themes to their base elements in a story of reconciliation from a child's perspective.
For the DVD interview Spielberg spoke of seeing the film as an expression of his youthful ideas, and confesses to being more pessimistic with age. In 2005 he presented a far darker vision of alien visitation in his remake of War of the Worlds. Made in the context of a post 9/11 world, Spielberg portrays an America on the run in the face of a terrifying alien invasion, but the real horror portrays Americans violently turning on each other in order to survive in the middle of an occupation. The post 60s sensibility of Close Encounters and E.T. mutated into a darker vision of humanity.
As times have changed. Close Encounters persists as a classic. It taps into human curiosity about the universe and the possibility of life elsewhere. The special effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull remain impressive, even more so with the use of the technology at hand. The movie made everyone want to walk out of the theater and watch the skies.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of the Classic Film by Roy Morton
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History by Michael Klastorin
The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind - DVD Extra - Directed by Laurent Bouzerau