“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
“I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”
“We didn’t choose this place! We didn’t choose these people! They were invited!”
Mysterious appearances of planes missing for 30 years. Airplanes narrowly avoiding a mid-air collision with an unidentified flying object. Lights in the skies. Steven Spielberg’s classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” maneuvers effortlessly between meta events of humanity’s first encounter with aliens to the personal homes of families affected by the visitation.
That family includes Roy Neary, (Richard Dreyfuss returning to another Spielberg movie from his role in “Jaws”) an electrical lineman, who goes out to investigate a suspicious series of power outrages in Indiana. While on the job, he has a close encounter with a UFO that slightly burns his face while passing overhead. His truck starts acting haywire and after his truck returns to normal operating, he begins to pursue the UFOs with the police along a highway.
His family includes Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr) and their three kids. She becomes increasingly dismayed by Roy as he becomes obsessed by the UFOs and begins to make a mountain-shaped structure that looks an awful lot like the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
Meanwhile, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) lives in Muncie, IN with her son, Barry (Cary Guffey) and they have a terrifying encounter with a UFO descending over their home. The occurrence causes all of the appliances in the house to malfunction. Bright shiny lights outside entice Barry enough that he moves toward them and is abducted by the aliens.
Eventually, scientists discover that the UFO makes a 5 tone musical phrase in a major scale. When they broadcast this communication into space, a series of numbers come back. Coordinates to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Roy and Jillian watch the same television broadcast about a train wreck near the Devil’s Tower and the spilling of nerve gas (a falsely planted story by the United States Army). They, along with other seekers, travel to Wyoming in search of answers and brave through the public scare tactics of the government.
Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay as well, juxtaposes between scientists studying and trying to solve the mystery of events around the visitation and the personal lives of families affected. This isn’t a big blockbuster with aliens conquering earth with ray guns. It is a unique film that tries to ground itself by visualizing what it would be like if intelligent life came down from space. The conception of the alien space ship owes probably to influence of 1950s culture along with the mistrust and suspicion of government that was a product of the post-Watergate era.
Thematically, I can see an analogy of spirituality as well emanating from the film. Roy and Jillian are seekers yearning to understand a transcendent experience that changes the courses of their lives. Roy loses his family and Jillian has her son abducted. Together, they are looking for answers while ignoring the authorities and the imposed safeguards. Deeper truths are being sought.
Spielberg is playing with a much wider canvas with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” after dealing with a road rage tanker truck and a murderous great white shark. In this movie, he introduces one of his signatures and that is an invitation for the audience to be overwhelmed with awe and wonder along with him. Spielberg’s child-like imagination mixed with real adult themes would go on to have a massive impact not only in his career but in movies generally.
Incredibly, he was just getting started. In the next ten years after “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Spielberg would rocket to the very top of the most influential film personalities in all of history. Deservedly so.
Lester Lauding Level: 4.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Jaws (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)