Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(United States, 1977)
When it comes to UFOs, I'm a confirmed skeptic. When it comes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I'm a believer. This is one of the movies that made a huge impact upon me when I was a kid. I was 10 years old when it came out, and, since I was an amateur astronomer at the time, it coincided perfectly with my interests. It also filled the gap left by Star Wars, which was growing a little "old" after about six months. Close Encounters was a different sort of movie from Star Wars - more serious and less action-oriented. But, even at a young age, I enjoyed it immensely, and I know many adults who liked it better than George Lucas' space opera. The movie was broadly marketed. The commercials were aimed at adults, but the Topps trading cards were strictly oriented towards children. Even today, it amazes me how well this movie works no matter what age you are. Most of my movie favorites from when I was 10 now look hopelessly juvenile, but Close Encounters stands tall. Many hail E.T. as Spielberg's greatest science fiction effort, but I believe Close Encounters to be the superior film. Both pictures generate a forceful emotional response, but, where E.T. is manipulative to the point of almost being cloying, Close Encounters is majestic. It soars as high as the mother ship above Devil's Tower. It resonates in the mind with the vibrancy of the five notes in the canyon. The feeling that sticks with me 25 years after I first saw the movie is the thrill of recognizing that, at least for two hours, we are not alone.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The plot is simple and straightforward, unburdened by pointless twists and turns. Close Encounters focuses on three characters and the different paths that bring them together at Devil's Tower, Wyoming, for the climax. First, there's Roy Neary (Dreyfuss), an everyday kind-of-guy with three kids and a materialistic wife (Teri Garr) who's hyper-concerned about what the neighbors will think. For his part, Roy's still a kid at heart, loving goofy golf and going to the movies to see Pinocchio. Roy works for the power company, and, one night, during an area-wide blackout, he has a close encounter with an alien spaceship that leaves half of his face sunburned and his psyche shaken. Suddenly, Roy's family becomes secondary to his obsession about aliens. He has unexplained visions of a mountain, and is compelled to make models of it out of whatever materials are available. The second character is Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a mother who has lost her young son, Barry (Cary Guffey), to the aliens. One night, they arrive at Jillian's house and take Barry away. Now, like Roy, she is obsessed by the image of the mountain, except, instead of making sculptures, she draws, aware that there is some connection between her artwork and the opportunity to be re-united with her son. She meets Roy at the time of the first alien appearance and ends up joining with him for a road trip after his wife and family have left him. Finally, there's U.N. scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut), the man in charge of a mostly-American team investigating unexplained phenomena around the globe and preparing a huge staging area for Earth's first contact with visitors from the stars. Lacombe is focused and humorless, but not unkind. When he recognizes that Jillian and Roy have been "invited" by the aliens to be at Devil's Tower, he does what little he can (without being overt) to assist them. In the end, however, Lacombe is more concerned with the aliens than he is with the humans.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is unquestionably a great movie - its eight Oscar nominations and one win (Best Cinematography) are a testimony to that. Its universal appeal gave movie-goers something to be excited about during the winter of 1977-78 as the first in a wave of post-Star Wars science fiction films broke (although, of course, Close Encounters went into production long before Star Wars reached screens). It is also one of those rare films that works equally as well for children and for adults. In fact, it speaks to the adult in the child and the child in the adult. The movie has stood the test of time. The story is fresh and compelling, the special effects are as remarkable as anything that CGI can do, and the music represents some of John Williams' best work. Close Encounters is the complete package, and it shines as brightly in its sixth re-editing as it did in its first.
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