Close Encounters of the Third Kind Review
1977 was a golden year for Science Fiction films. Everyone, of course, remembers that it was the debut of one of the most overrated film franchises of all time. In that same year, however a young upstart was prepping his second cinema outing. Having pretty much invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws (1975) Steven Spielberg was about to make a film that was the distillation of a seminal childhood experience.
That experience, when the young Spielberg was woken in the middle of the night by his father to come and watch a meteor shower, was to have a huge impact on the young boy and was later to appear almost verbatim in the vastly superior “big science fiction” film of 1977. The world was about to be introduced to Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The film, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, concerns a typical American everyman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who as an electrical contractor is sent out at night to investigate a city-wide power cut. Whilst he is out, he is buzzed by some strange craft, and the next day develops an unusual fascination for a strange mountain shape. As the film continues, his fascination becomes an obsession that destroys his family, and almost himself before he finally finds the source of his madness. Drawn to the strange landmark he has seen in his mind, he discovers a secret scientific base that has managed to make contact with the alien craft.
Close Encounters is a beautifully crafted, observational movie that manages to catch all the emotions that humans feel at the fact that there just might be sentient beings out there who have an interest in our planet. Wonder and fear is wonderfully portrayed through the first contact that Neary experiences and the abduction of Barry (Cary Guffey), which gradually transmutes into joy as the humans realise that there is no malice in these aliens at all.
Along the way, Spielberg demonstrates a truly world view - refreshing in the Hollywood age. Strange objects appear in the Gobi desert, and Indians are the first race to experience the key to communication - the famous five note riff that forms the cornerstone of the film's score.
Yet, one of the keystones of the film is not just the wide canvas of alien contact, but the more intimate family drama of Neary's obsession and what it does to his family. One beautifully observed scene has him sitting at the dinner table, and without realising it sculpting the monument in mashed potato. Spielberg doesn't go for the big emotional crescendo, but has far more intimate concerns in mind. I defy anyone to watch the way Neary's son looks at his father and not feel emotion welling up inside them. This is truly affecting cinema.
And this more than anything else is the cornerstone of the film's success. For a film that deals with such a weighty and important subject, Spielberg never loses sight of the intimate dramas at the core of the film and it is this that makes the film so affecting. This is helped by a truly astonishing performance by Dreyfuss. He lobbied hard for the part, but Spielberg really wasn't keen - having just used the actor in Jaws. But Dreyfuss managed to persuade the director and delivers a truly amazing performance. It is a very generous, subtle performance - designed to bring out the best from the material and his co-stars without going for the bombastic moments that the likes of OSCAR voters look for. This grounds the film in a level of reality we are not always used to seeing from our science fiction films.
The level of performance that Dreyfuss gives elicits great performances from those around him too. Terri Garr as Neary's wife matches him note for note on performance even if her role is a little undeveloped - and Spielberg's talent for getting great performances out of children is shown here too.
Yet the film also has the wider scope of the alien contact - and this is realised using some truly breathtaking special effects that still stand up well today. The tension that Spielberg introduces into the eventual reveal of the aliens is masterful. For fully three quarters of the film, we see nothing but lights (as beautifully illustrated in the abduction of Barry scene) - yet the sense of an alien presence is beautifully created. As a viewer we hardly realise just how desperate we are to actually see the tangible evidence of the alien beings. And when Spielberg finally does reveal the ship to us, in the final reel of the film, time has done nothing to diminish the sheer spectacle of what we are witnessing.
Close Encounters is not what the modern film watcher may be used to. It is a lugubrious film that is not at all concerned with the time it takes to reach the ultimate destination. The only pyrotechnics on view here are emotional ones. However, the film over time has come to be seen as a classic - and this is certainly a deserved reputation. Close Encounters is a film that will reward on first viewing, and will be a film that you will wish to return to again and again. The film deserves a place in every film fan's collection. A wonderful film.