CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, 1977
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen
Review by Steven Loeb
Cableman Roy Neary is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountainlike image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy and the agents both follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.
In the early days of science fiction movies, beings from other planets were often used as a symbol of fear and destruction. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, aliens were often used as a representation for the invasion of Communism. They came, they saw and they destroyed everything in their path. By the late 1970s, though the Cold War was still going strong, the Red Scare was long over, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) had improved relations between the United States and Russia, leading to a reduction in the number of missiles that each country would be allowed to keep in their arsenals. It seemed that the two super-powers might be coming toward some kind of resolution to their decades-long war; of course this would not actually happen until more than ten years later. Nevertheless, if there is one film that shows a prevailing optimism in the direction that the Cold War, and the world in general, was taking at the time, it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the third film directed by Steven Spielberg.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the story of a small town electrician named Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who experiences a seemingly random encounter with a UFO. After the experience, Roy becomes obsessed with aliens and UFOs. His behavior becomes extremely strange and erratic, including drawing the same mountain over and over. When he is unable to explain his behavior to his wife, she leaves him, and only then does he realize that he is drawing Devils Tower in Wyoming, the site where the UFOs are about to make contact with humans. As he races to get there, the government, having made a list of people who will be allowed to visit the aliens, apprehends him. After being questioned, Roy is added to the list, the aliens return the numerous people who had been abducted over the years, Roy and the others on the list enter the spaceship and are taken away to make contact with the friendly aliens.
Close Encounters was a film that Steven Spielberg had been working on for almost a decade by the time it was finally released. After shopping the film around, Spielberg was finally able to sell the script, and get creative control of the project, following the massive success of Jaws (1975). Based on a story he had written as a teenager, it is one of the few scripts for which Spielberg gets full writing credit, even though the script went through numerous changes and numerous other writers worked on different drafts of the story. Despite the contributions of other writers, in many ways, this is the first real Spielberg film, as this is where he began to incorporate themes that he would use in many of his later films, some of which reflect his own life and would come to define him as a director. This is the first of Spielberg’s films to depict an unhappy marriage; Spielberg’s own parents had divorced when he was a child and he often incorporates broken families, or single parent homes, in his films. Roy and his wife have a tempestuous relationship to begin with, and they see their marriage become even more strained as a result of Roy’s obsessions, ultimately leading to the collapse of their relationship. Spielberg would use this theme most famously in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), a film about a lonely boy who finds friendship with a lost alien. Spielberg’s films also often incorporate the themes of wonder and child-like innocence, seen here as Roy enters the spaceship at the end of the film. Though he is unsure of what is going to happen, he is excited and awed instead of afraid. This motif was used again in the Indiana Jones movies and, perhaps most successfully, in Jurassic Park (1993).
Close Encounters was the second collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss, the first being Jaws two years earlier. Dreyfuss, who had first gained fame for his role in American Graffiti (1973), became a major movie star after Jaws. In 1978, he became the youngest actor ever to win the Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Goodbye Girl (1977), though this honor has since been surpassed by Adrian Brody.
Unfortunately for Dreyfuss, at the peak of his success, he developed a serious drug habit and, after crashing his car and being arrested for cocaine possession in 1982, he was forced to enter rehab. He was eventually able to resuscitate his career, going on to receive a nomination for Best Actor for Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). After Close Encounters, Dreyfuss and Spielberg would work together one more time in Always (1989), a film that is widely considered to be one of Spielberg’s worst movies.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a huge success, both critically and at the box office. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including a Supporting Actress nomination for Melina Dillion, playing the mother of an abducted child, and Spielberg’s first for Best Director; the film would walk away with two Oscars, for cinematography and sound editing.