When Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his fourth film and first after Jaws, opened in the fall of 1977, many wondered how it would compare with Star Wars. George Lucas’ first groundbreaking, pop-culture shaping and box office conquering mega-hit had overshadowed most of the year. Could Spielberg, whose giant killer shark movie was now the former biggest hit of all time, top The Force? Is Spielberg’s UFO epic better than Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope? Let me go on record: You bet your pile of mashed potatoes it is!
The film opens with a series of scenes in which the impossible is occurring all over the world. We see a bizarre discovery of long-missing aircraft materialize in the desert, a massive power outage occurring in suburbia and (my favorite) a stern air traffic controller listening to a pilot who sees something amazing but refuses to report a UFO sighting. We meet Roy Neary, a boyish father (Richard Dreyfuss, whose sideburns are the most dated thing in the movie), his uptight wife Ronnie (played by Teri Garr) and Jillian, a single mother (played by Melinda Dillon–yes, the Mother from A Christmas Story) who undergo a deeply personal journey of discovery. When Roy and Jillian can’t get a certain shape out of their minds, they alienate (pun intended) everyone around them to figure out what it all means.
Dreyfuss is terrific at conveying the unstoppable need to know but allows us to see the pain and humiliation his madness is costing his family. Garr is relatable and smart in what could have been a thankless role. Dillon is wonderful and earthy, as is Bob Balaban and legendary director Francois Truffaut in key turns.
A consistent quality in Spielberg’s work is his gift for directing children. Note the famous dinner scene, in which a pile of mashed potatoes triggers Roy’s obsession; Although Dreyfuss is the focus of the scene, watch Shawn Bishop, the young actor sitting next to Dreyfuss, matching him beat for beat. As Neary’s oldest son, Bishop is visibly crying and conveying the horror of watching his dad lose his mind. A few scenes later, when Roy is tearing up his neighborhood, keep your eyes on Justin Dreyfuss (no relation), playing Toby, the youngest Neary boy: as Roy stalks around, trashing his front lawn, Toby follows him, helping him like a dutiful, confused little boy. It’s an honest, perfect touch that Spielberg doesn’t underline. This is why his movie is still a masterpiece 40 years later: the human story is so real and authentic, it makes the sharp turns into science fiction seem plausible.
A standout aspect of Spielberg’s film is the hope and wonder it evokes. Not only is mankind’s crucial, first close encounter a good one overall but, with a youthful, infectious optimism, the film tells us to Watch The Skies. Not as a warning of those acid-blooded Xenomorphs from Alien, nor the squid/crab thingies from Independence Day nor the dreadlocked, purring Predators. Spielberg is telling us to step outside our homes, walk onto the front lawn and gaze at the astonishing view above.
If you’ve never seen this movie, all I could say is see it on the big screen and savor the experience. Let John Williams’ rich score wash over you, allow your jaw to gape at the still-incredible special effects and savor the witty dialogue, thoughtful questions on whether we’re alone in the universe and the moments of humor that frequently spring up.
Two things always spring to mind when I think of this film, a personal favorite that was released the year I was born. The comic book adaptation was first I ever purchased and, while it was skinny, it was as wide as a coffee table. I carried it everywhere like a teddy bear. Also, the scene where the mother runs onto her lawn, watching the light in the clouds fade away as a UFO steals her child and she cries out “Baaaarrry!” That scarred me for life.