By Dean Treadway
My first viewing of Close Encounters, in the winter of 1977, is etched into my mind, so much so that I cannot let this brief review go without referring back to it.
My parents and I were devoted drive-in goers at the time, but I insisted on seeing Spielberg’s movie at a fancy four-walled Atlanta theater, the Phipps Plaza Penthouse (where it was showing in 70mm). I had been unfailingly intrigued by the mysterious ad campaign, with the image of a bright apparition exploding at the horizon of a two-lane highway. It felt scary and unknowable, and the trailer didn’t let us in on much else. I knew it was a film about UFOs—a particular popular obsession in the 1970s—bur I knew little more about it. Even Spielberg’s name, post-Jaws, didn’t come with the cachet it’s earned since. Standing in a long line for this cinematic treat further enhanced my eagerness. In fact, I was more thrilled by seeing this film than I had been by the more obviously appealing Star Wars the preceding summer.
I remember sitting in the theater, enveloped by darkness, as the film began. John Williams’ brilliant score began, screeching against a black screen, and then surprisingly exploding with a boom as the film opened with a bright orange image of an overwhelming desert sand storm, where WWII bombers are discovered nearly new by a shocked investigatory team. From that moment on, I was taken with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (even the title captured me—what are the other kinds?). I found every one of my necessary buttons pushed by it, to the point where I still see it as one of Spielberg’s most essential works. The first half of it almost plays like a horror film, keeping its “villains” benevolence under wraps. I recall being particularly intrigued with its riveting one-scene sideshow involving the confused reactions of an air-traffic control team as they try to suss out what’s happening to a pair of passenger flights bedeviled by a UFO appearance (it’s still the best scene in the film, with actors radically committed to their scenario).
Further underlining this horror element is the stunning sequence in which Melinda Dillon (superb as a lonely Midwestern single mother) is visited by aliens at her secluded home, where they set their sights on her son (Georgia-born newcomer Cary Guffey). I found the scene terrifying, as the home’s electronic equipment goes mad as she defends her son (is there anything more unsettling than that moment where they methodically unscrew the heating vents?). As the Oscar-winning Vilmos Zsigmond photography bathed the audience with smoky vim, while the complex sound design comes together in startling action, I was stunned. That moment where Dillon exits her home, screaming and fruitlessly chasing after the assailants as they disappear into effects designer Douglas Trumbull’s painterly clouds, seriously scarred me in the best possible fashion.
Richard Dreyfuss, meanwhile, also struck me, initially, as a cozy hero. His first scene, as a blue-collar toady tending to the area’s electrical outage, was like nothing I’d ever seen, with the cab of his truck being stung with overwhelming light as an image of his destiny is planted in his brain while the world around him is literally turned upside down. I recall being struck by the cluttered art direction in his family’s chaotic home—this felt like reality to me. Spielberg’s inclusion of this as a signal to his crumbling marriage still seems to like something that would never make the cut were Close Encounters produced today (the emphatic arguments at the dinner table and elsewhere now seem too scary for the kids in the audience, but I remain admirable in their inclusion). In my many subsequent viewings of the film, I’ve started to feel that Spielberg’s exuberance in portraying Roy Neary’s ensuing insanity (building a gigantic model of the climactic Devil’s Tower in their living room) feels particularly cruel to his wife (dynamically frustrated Teri Garr) and children. But I still accept it.
Though I had no idea who he was when I was a kid, I adored Francois Truffaut’s turn as a sympathetic UFO expert who bonds closely with Dreyfuss. And I, too, was taken with Bob Balaban’s support as Truffaut’s interpreter (the one scene grouping these actors together in a tense, stark confrontation is a centerpiece). The film continues on its alarming path as Dreyfuss and Dillon (who’ve met as fellow victims) make their way to Wyoming’s now-iconic Devil’s Tower, where artificially knocked-out animals are strewn about the landscape in order to dupe the population into evacuation. I remember loving, too, the barely-hinted-at Dreyfuss/Dillon romance, set up during the film’s first sublime mountainside glimpse at the alien crafts (their final parting, with a kiss, remains moving to me).
By the time Close Encounters climaxed with the extended, musically-driven conversation between the beyond-daunting mothership (what a creation!) and us curious humans, I was a child who’d been blown away both by Spielberg’s massive creativity, the overwhelming special effects and art direction (wow—that landing spot set!) and by Williams’ gorgeous score (can you imagine the genius that it took to do this and the Star Wars score in the same year?). I was further moved by the turn the film takes in mood, in which the aliens turn out to be not hateful but wholly curious with humanity. Like everyone was, I was emotionally shaken by this unique feature which now seems completely Spielbergian. Years later, when the film’s Special Edition was released, I recall feeling distracted by Dreyfuss’ unneeded glimpse inside the mothership. Even then, I felt this was a feature was best left up to our imaginations. Then again, I loved the addition of a naval ship being abandoned in the desert, so it was worth it (I’d like to see a complete version of the film WITHOUT the interior mothership scene). Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie that has entered fully into the lexicon of film history, and if I were in a more suitable mood right now, I’d go on and on about it. As such, I’ll leave at this: it’s among my ten favorite sci-fi movies of all time, and I still think of it as this superstar writer and director’s most invaluable work.