THE STORY – Science fiction adventure about a group of people who attempt to contact alien intelligence. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) witnesses an unidentified flying object, and even has a “sunburn” from its bright lights to prove it. Roy refuses to accept an explanation for what he saw and is prepared to give up his life to pursue the truth about UFOs.
THE CAST – Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr & Bob Balaban
THE TEAM – Steven Spielberg (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 135 Minutes
Heaping praise on Steven Spielberg has been such a common practice for fifty years that it can sometimes feel unnecessary. He’s made several of the most influential, imitated, and discussed films of all time, and several more that would be career highlights for any other director. We all know how great he is. Who wants to be the four millionth person to say “E.T.” (1982) changed their life or label “Jurassic Park” (1993) the perfect blockbuster?
The legacy of Spielberg has become an increasingly bigger talking point in the last half-decade, and it’s easy to see why. He’s getting older and taking stock of his life, and the material surrounding him has reflected it. The documentary “Spielberg” was released to positive reviews in 2017, and Spielberg’s thinly-veiled account of his own childhood, “The Fabelmans,” is now in theaters.
The intimacy of “The Fabelmans” and the way it sheds light on Spielberg’s complicated relationship with his parents is part of what makes “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) such a compelling film to revisit. Released between the era-defining triumphs that were “Jaws” (1975) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “Close Encounters” was, similarly, a massive commercial success. The film’s reputation has somewhat dimmed with time, making it the rare Spielberg classic that feels as though it hasn’t been codified and demystified by pop culture (the “musical tones” scene notwithstanding). There are a few reasons for this, but let’s first examine the plot.
The closest that “Close Encounters” gets to a protagonist is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). There’s a case to be made that the film is an ensemble, but we spend the most screen time with Roy, an electrical lineman who lives in Indiana with his family. While out on a night call, he has a close encounter with a UFO that hovers over his truck and beams light so bright it burns his face. Obviously shaken by the said encounter, Roy becomes increasingly obsessed, leading him to cross paths with those looking for a UFO encounter of their own: single mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and French scientist Lacombe (Francois Truffaut).
The juggling of these three characters is superb, resulting in different kinds of dramatic tension and set pieces that rank among the best Spielberg has ever conceived. The abduction of Jillian’s son, Barry (Cary Guffer), is a clinic in nearly every facet of visual storytelling: cross-cutting, lighting, and framing. The screws from the vent coming undone is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand up, and before you have a chance to catch your breath, the iconic shot of Barry opening the front door blows you through the back of the theater (or living room).
Jillian’s quest to recover her son strikes at the film’s core theme: familial separation. The mother looking for the son, the father abandoning the family, the scientists pursuing the UFO (i.e. “Mothership”). There’s a melancholy quality to each of these stories, and given that Spielberg, a child of divorce, penned the screenplay himself (with uncredited help from Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson), it’s logical to assume that the unease he felt towards his own parents made its way into the characters.
Roy is the most crucial avatar here. He alienates his wife (Teri Garr) and kids to such an extent that they leave him, and instead of trying to fix things, he spirals further into obsession. Spielberg’s protagonists are, for the most part, uncomplicated and make decisions that can be viewed as morally grounded. Indiana Jones never lets the pursuit of magical relics get in the way of his or his friends’ well-being. Roy Neary is a glaring exception, a man who’s perfectly content giving up the things most people value. It’s a telling splash of coldness from the director, and it supports the ties between Roy and his own father, Arnold, whom he felt abandoned by for many years (additional context in “The Fabelmans“).
“Close Encounters” is the Spielberg film that’s most indebted to the spirit of New Hollywood, in that we are watching a director explore psychological hang-ups through the facade of genre entertainment. What makes this particular case so intriguing is how so many of the film’s strokes of genius appeared to be subconscious. It was during the production of “Close Encounters” that Spielberg decided he wanted to tell a story about his parents’ divorce; seemingly unaware that he was doing it already (the aforementioned story eventually became “E.T.”).
When Spielberg appeared on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” in 1994, host James Lipton informed the audience that the director’s father was a computer scientist and his mother was a musician. He then pointed out that when the humans confront the UFO in the climactic scene, they make music on their computers and are able to communicate. “I’d love to say, you know, I intended that, and I realized that was my mother and father, but not until this moment [did I put that together],” said a flabbergasted Spielberg.
The special edition cut of “Close Encounters” omits some of Roy’s erratic behavior (digging up the backyard, mashed potato mountains), whereas the theatrical and director’s cuts provide ample room for the character to come apart. It’s effective in every version, especially given Dreyfuss’s manic performance, but it does make some jarring tonal shifts. There’s also little time for Roy to develop a bond with Jillian. The debate over which “Close Encounters” is better rages on, but the fact that Spielberg made changes at all speaks to his own complicated relationship with the film. Did he feel it was an artistic flaw, or did he, a father of six children, struggle to reconcile the abandonment issues of his younger self?
The fact that “Close Encounters” can weave these ambiguous elements into the framework of a science fiction epic is an achievement that cannot be overstated. Spielberg’s directorial genius is on full display throughout, and his personal obsessions, which can sometimes go missing when someone else is behind the typewriter, is front-and-center in a way that he’s rarely allowed since. It’s still worth your time five decades later.