What's the Big Deal?: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn't as flashy or exciting as, say, Star Wars, which was released in theaters six months earlier. But it's been an enduring and well-respected part of the sci-fi canon for more than 30 years, frequently cited as one of Spielberg's best movies. What distinguishes it from other aliens-from-space movies? Let's pile up our mashed potatoes and investigate.

The Praise

Close Encounters earned nine Oscar nominations: best director, supporting actress (Melinda Dillon), cinematography, visual effects, art direction, original score, editing, and sound. Cinematography was its only win, though it also got a special recognition award for its sound effects editing, which was not a separate category yet then. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films bestowed Saturn Awards on the film for its direction, screenplay, and music. (It lost the Best Science Fiction Film category to something called Star Wars.) The Directors Guild and Writers Guild of America, the National Film Preservation Board, the National Board of Review, and the Motion Picture Sound Editors guild all recognized Close Encounters as well. In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked it 64th on its list of the 100 best American movies of all time.

The Context

After the blockbuster success of Jaws in 1975, Steven Spielberg could have done pretty much anything in Hollywood that he wanted to. But he'd already decided that his next project would be a sci-fi story about alien contact, and had already signed a deal with Columbia Pictures to make such a film. What the shark movie gave Spielberg was clout, which gave him more creative control. He'd been rolling the alien-encounter idea around in his head since he was a kid, and Jaws ensured that he'd be able to do it right.

Paul Schrader, an up-and-coming screenwriter who would go on to write Taxi Driver, was commissioned even before Jaws began production to script Spielberg's alien story. Spielberg hated what Schrader came up with, though, and rejected it -- even after rewrites -- while Jaws was in post-production. More writers were deployed, more ideas pitched, more ideas scrapped. Spielberg wound up writing the screenplay himself, with much input from friend Jerry Belson (who later worked with him on Always). To this day, Close Encounters remains the only film Spielberg has directed for which he also received sole "written by" credit.

Which makes sense if you know (and it would be hard not to know) what a space nerd Spielberg is. Close Encounters has its roots in Firelight, the feature-length movie that Spielberg made as a 16-year-old high school student. Firelight had a completely different storyline, but the basic premise of seeing lights in the sky and becoming obsessed with contacting extra-terrestrials was the same, and Spielberg says several moments from Firelight were re-created shot-for-shot in Close Encounters.

Spielberg thought and talked a lot about Close Encounters while he made Jaws, which indirectly led to Jaws co-star Richard Dreyfuss being cast as the lead in Close Encounters. Spielberg wanted Steve McQueen first, then '70s luminaries like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, and Jack Nicholson, but he eventually went with Dreyfuss, who'd become enthusiastic after hearing so much about the project from Spielberg and campaigned for himself.

Seeking to avoid the hassles of shooting on location after the terrible time he'd had with Jaws, Spielberg initially hoped to film all of Close Encounters on sound stages. That proved unfeasible, however, and Spielberg found himself hopping all over the place, shooting on location in Wyoming, Alabama, California, and India. He was once again plagued by technical problems, not to mention tropical storms that ruined some of the Alabama sets.

The film's budget ballooned, ultimately costing some $19.4 million -- considerably more than the $2.7 million he'd estimated when he sold Columbia on the idea back in 1973. A Columbia exec later said if they'd known it would cost so much, they'd never have done it. He wasn't exaggerating, either. Columbia started having money problems during production and could barely afford the planned budget, let alone the actual costs.

These financial considerations had far-reaching effects. Spielberg wanted another six months to finish the movie to his satisfaction and release it in the summer of 1978, but Columbia needed to release it immediately, in 1977. (It had already been pushed back from its summer 1977 release date.) Spielberg complied, the film was released in November 1977, and it grossed $288 million worldwide -- the biggest hit in Columbia's history. Emboldened by this, Spielberg told Columbia that he wanted to go back and do the things he'd wanted to do the first time and re-release the film. Columbia gave him $1.5 million to shoot new stuff, but on the condition that the new stuff include a look inside the alien spacecraft, as this would be something to advertise in the re-release marketing campaign. Spielberg complied, the "Special Edition" was released in 1980 ... and Spielberg immediately regretted showing the inside of the spacecraft. He thought it should have remained a mystery.

It wasn't until 1998 that Spielberg finally made the movie his way, to be released on home video as the "Collector's Edition." He didn't shoot any new footage for it, instead re-editing material from the original shoots. It's very similar to the original theatrical version, but with certain elements from the 1980 re-release incorporated into it, minus the spaceship interior footage. Spielberg considers this "Collector's Edition" (also known as the "director's cut") to be the definitive version of the film.

The Movie

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is an ordinary Midwestern fellow who becomes obsessed with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life after seeing a group of UFOs. He's not alone, either -- lots of people saw 'em. His wife (Teri Garr) didn't, though, and she's embarrassed by his behavior. Meanwhile, the government is trying to make contact with the aliens while publicly denying that aliens exist, cuz that's what the government does.

What it influenced: Columbia's immediate reaction upon seeing the box-office receipts for Close Encounters was, of course, "We want a sequel!" Spielberg didn't want to make a sequel, exactly -- but neither did he want Columbia to make one without him, as Universal had done with Jaws. His idea for a Close Encounters follow-up was a horror film in which subsequent alien visitors proved to be more terrifying and malicious than their Close Encounters predecessors. He called it Watch the Skies (which had been a working title for Close Encounters), and then Night Skies, and then didn't make the movie anyway. But several story elements from the unmade film found their way into E.T., Poltergeist, and Gremlins. Spielberg is so influential that even the movies he doesn't make inspire other movies.

The characters in the movie use a simple five-note melody to communicate with the aliens. It's repeated a billion times and sticks in your head afterward. The James Bond film Moonraker (1979) included the tune as a gag (it's the code that unlocks a door); it shows up also in The Wizard (1989), Aliens in the Attic (2009), and Monsters vs Aliens (2009), to name a few. (TV's South Park has also used it a few times.)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was so popular -- and its title so distinctive -- that it became a touchstone for future alien-related stories. This year's Paul has several overt references to it, for example, and Super 8 was rather obviously inspired by it and by Spielberg's movies in general. The phrase "close encounters" has entered the general lexicon as shorthand for alien contact.

The near-simultaneous success of Close Encounters and Star Wars kicked off a resurgence in cinematic sci-fi, which in recent years had been on the wane or had been entirely Earth-bound (e.g., Logan's Run, Rollerball). Outer space and aliens became trendy again, and the next few years saw films like Alien (which had been in the works but was now a hot property), The Black Hole, Meteor, Moonraker, and Battle Beyond the Stars.

What to Look for

Viewers who have grown up on movies in which aliens come to Earth and interact with humans may find Close Encounters a little slow-moving at times. The story's focus is the details of such visitations -- details that many later movies would skip over quickly in order to get to what happens next, after the E.T.s have arrived. Spielberg wanted to show, as realistically as possible, how the arrival itself would play out, and what effect it would have on ordinary people. He was doing it without CGI, too: For its day, the special effects were spectacular. Even now, they're pretty solid.

One of the film's central themes is communication. In a few scenes, a Spanish-speaking character is translated into English and then into French -- even here on Earth, we don't always understand each other. Scenes at air-traffic control feature overlapping dialogue and technical jargon, suggesting another type of communication that most of us can't understand even though it's in English. Roy is unable to explain to his wife what's on his mind, and she's unable (or unwilling) to figure it out. "Don't talk about this until you know what you're talking about!" she says, stifling him. Ultimately, the aliens send their messages through the universal languages of numbers and music.

There are religious analogies sprinkled throughout the film, though it's not clear how deeply Spielberg intended for us to contemplate them. The Ten Commandments is on TV in the Neary house, and Roy Neary would become something like a prophet with a strong connection to a mountaintop where a spiritual experience would take place. You get the idea.

If you haven't seen the film and don't know exactly how it ends, pay attention to the way Roy's relationship with his wife and children evolves over the course of the story. Note that Spielberg was single and childless when he made the movie. He has said that if he'd been a father at the time, he'd have ended the movie differently.

What's the Big Deal?

In his New York Times review of the film, Vincent Canby noted that the 1950s had been a fertile decade for invaders-from-space movies, but that "nine times out of ten [they] were up to no good." Close Encounters certainly wasn't the first sci-fi film to show the aliens as friendly, but it was a rare enough concept to be remarkable. Here is where Spielberg established the tone that would most often be associated with his movies: child-like wonder at the magic of the world around us. Many of his films would have things go awry (Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, etc.), but they always begin with that sense of "Wow! This is cool!"