Close Encounters of the Third Kind screens at BFI Southbank in December as part of Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder.
An audacious and bravura piece of filmmaking released in America in 1977 took cinema audiences on the most breathtaking and overwhelming science fiction journey that anyone had experienced since Stanley Kubrick had produced 2001: A Space Odyssey nine years earlier – and no, it was not Star Wars.
The film was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and while, in Britain, we had to wait until March 1978 before we could experience Steven Spielberg’s dazzling depiction of the first contact between humans and aliens, its appearance, coming four months after the release of George Lucas’s box-office behemoth, acted as an invigorating antidote to the shallowness of that particular science fiction film.
I have to add in my defence here that I am not among those who view the release of Star Wars as that defining moment in film history where cinematic science fiction became infantilised for evermore. Despite its slightness, I actually found the film rather entertaining, but it was just not the momentous, earth-shattering experience that was promised, or at least expected (I became more of a convert and began to finally feel the force with the two superior sequels, although those Ewoks sorely tested my resolve). Consequently, after that original viewing, I had no great desire to repeat the experience.
But that was not the case with Spielberg’s magisterial film. Repeat viewings were a necessity. I went at least four times in the two weeks that the film screened at my local Odeon, with an additional trip to the Queen’s Cinema in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the large roadshow cinema which then served the northeast of England and screened Close Encounters blown up to 70mm (the film was predominantly shot on 35mm, though the shooting of all sequences featuring special effects employed 65mm negative). For me, Spielberg had created one of the greatest and most moving of all science fiction films.
Spielberg had actually struck a deal with Columbia Pictures in late 1973 for a science fiction film, while he was working on the post-production of The Sugarland Express, and had begun working with a number of writers (including Paul Schrader) in an attempt to fashion a story based on his pet subject of UFOs.
Although work on Jaws (1975) intervened, the phenomenal success of that film resulted in Columbia awarding Spielberg complete creative control of his UFO project, the shooting script of which was eventually completed by mid 1976 (Spielberg was eventually awarded sole writing credit).
The original idea regarding the central protagonist was that he was to be either someone from the armed services or a policeman, but Spielberg astutely changed the character to an Average Joe type figure, electrical lineman Roy Neary (superbly played by Richard Dreyfuss), to enable audiences to more easily identify with both him and his situation, as he faces unemployment, a near mental breakdown and the disintegration of his family life as the result of an encounter with a UFO.
The disruption of a ‘normal’ life is also the situation faced by the film’s secondary protagonist – another identifiable figure for audiences – single mother Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), whose encounter with a UFO ends with the abduction of her young son, Barry, and her own mental collapse.
Spielberg masterfully interlaces these two storylines of normal characters dealing with abnormal situations with a third plot strand, that of the scientific investigation into UFO activity led by Claude Lacombe (a supremely engaging François Truffaut), which is itself interconnected with a military and government cover-up. The film here taps into both the belief that there had been official concealment since the 1950s of recorded UFO activity and into the prevailing post-Watergate mood of suspicion and distrust of officialdom.
The viewer’s identification with the Neary and Guiler characters is reinforced all the more when the representatives of officialdom, in the face of opposition from scientist Lacombe, attempt to prevent them from reaching the secret UFO landing zone at Devil’s Tower, the stunning setting for the spectacular and deeply moving climax.
While the film may be replete with memorable and iconic moments (the lights behind Neary’s truck rising vertically, the Guiler child being bathed in red light upon opening a door), they all pale when set against this climactic scene of alien contact, not only one of the greatest set-pieces directed by Spielberg himself, but one of the most astounding sequences in all science fiction cinema. The mother ship appearing above Devil’s Tower and then turning turtle over the landing zone, were, and still are, cinematic moments of awe-inspiring wonder.
While Vilmos Zsigmond and Douglas Trumbull certainly deserve acclaim for their peerless cinematography and special effects supervision, I would like to single out John Williams for particular praise, as his sublime score is particularly effective in, if not crucial to the success of, this climactic sequence. His five-note alien communication motif has become as identifiable a piece of science fiction music as his theme for Star Wars.
While the shots of a smiling alien or of Barry Guiler plaintively crying “bye” to the departing aliens could have been excruciatingly risible moments with which to end the film, Williams’s superlative and heart-rending score, working in tandem with Spielberg’s assured handling of these moments, ensures that the possibility of any embarrassed mirth is completely extinguished. This is surely one of Williams’s finest works.
In more recent years, Spielberg has commented that he would be unable to make this film today, in a general sense because he simply could not write and direct such an optimistic work anymore (nor is he as devout a believer in UFOs), and, in a more specific sense, because he could not, now that he is a family man himself, show the Neary character abandoning his wife and children to go travelling with aliens.
Nevertheless – despite the director’s own reservations over aspects of the film – while E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982) may remain his masterpiece, Close Encounters of the Third Kind runs it a close second.