Retro Review: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

I have long believed in the possibility of life in other places in our vast universe. And at one time, I was an avid reader of books written by people who claimed to have been abducted and returned. So when I heard about a new science fiction film with this theme, a big-budget production conceived and directed by Stephen Spielberg, I was ready to watch it as soon as it hit the cinemas. The cast included such flavour of the month names as Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr, as well as an acting appearance by the famous French film-maker, Francois Truffaut.

The scene is set very nicely. French scientist Lacombe (Truffaut) makes some startling discoveries. A missing squadron of WW2 planes, parked neatly in a desert location in America. A lost and intact cargo ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and witnesses describing how they saw a near miss between civil airliners and a UFO. We know this is going to be good, straight off.

The action cuts to Roy, (Dreyfuss) and his wife Ronnie. (Garr) Roy works as a lineman for the electric company, and as he is investigating a power cut one night, a UFO flies over his truck, with the light from the craft leaving slight burns on one side of his face. Roy becomes obsessed with UFO sightings, and begins to build a huge model in his house, using dirt from the garden. As he builds, it takes the shape of a flat-topped mountain.
In another home we see Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her young son. His toys activate themselves after a burst of light outside the house, and Jillian also begins to have visions of a flat-topped mountain.

With all the UFO activity being reported, Lacombe arrives in the US to investigate. Research identifies a mountain in Wyoming, the Devil’s Tower, as the flat-topped mountain seen in the visions, and the government seals off the area, issuing false reports of a toxic gas spill. Roy has become consumed by his obsession with the UFO sightings and building his replica of the mountain. This ruins his marriage, and Ronnie leaves, taking the children. Despite the government reports, both Jillian and Roy decide to make their separate ways to the site, unable to resist the overwhelming urge to see the UFO they believe to be there. Meanwhile, Lacombe has set up a means to communicate with the aliens, using musical notes as language.

Hundreds of people are converging on the site, and most are caught by the Army, and denied access. Eventually, Jillian and Roy meet each other, and contrive to sneak into the location. Hiding from the authorities, they watch Lacombe begin to communicate with his musical device.

What happens next is true cinema. Something that has to be seen on a big screen, in the dark, to be best-appreciated. Perhaps the best-realised spaceship ever seen on screen appears, appearing to dwarf the mountain by its immense size. I was 25 years old, and actually said “Wow” in a cinema, that’s how impressive it was. After increased musical communication that begins to sound like an electronic concerto, the ship lands, and opens a huge hatch. Out from the ship come men dressed as WW2 pilots, looking dazed and confused. Schoolgirls in uniform appear too, (referencing ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’) and more and more people emerge dazed into the light.
A team of volunteers has been assembled, ready to enter the spaceship with the friendly aliens to embark on a voyage of discovery. After being found at the site and interviewed by Lacombe and his team, Roy decides to go along too.

I liked this film so much, that the following week, when I had a friend visiting from France, I took her to see it. I watched it twice in one week, something I hadn’t done since ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. The special effects are second to none, even now, and the acting from all concerned is just right. For my money, this is still Spielberg’s best film.

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52 thoughts on “Retro Review: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

  1. Pete, I did see this in a movie theater when it first came out. I was amazed! Of course, And I loved the role played by François Truffaut! I also loved the music so much that I bought the 33-1/3 album, which I have to this day. (I later bought the CD.)

    My only criticism of the film is that the aliens seem to wander about aimlessly, and look like children dressed in alien costumes (which was, of course, the case). There have been special editions of this film (and I have one on DVD), but the aliens remain as they were first seen. I don’t generally like a film director to retroactively update a classic film with up-to-date special effects (I’m looking at you, George Lucas!), but I think CGI aliens that look basically the same, but more convincing, would be (or would have been) a good idea.

    I’d also like to point out that I’ve been to Devils Tower in Wyoming (1995). You can easily find hundreds of photos online, but (like the Matterhorn in Switzerland, which I’ve visited twice) photos don’t do it justice. Not even close! By the way, Devils Tower is described as a “laccolithic butte composed of igneous rock.” Native Americans believed that the vertical grooves were created by giant bear claws.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That Devil’s Tower must be a sight to see indeed.
      I agree about the poor choice of alien costumes, and complete lack of positive interaction with them, at the end of the film. But this was 1977, and I would sooner have the ‘clumsy’ aliens shown briefly, than ‘updated aliens’ inserted later. Like you, I don’t think films should be tampered with. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I confess that ET wasn’t really my thing, though I can see the appeal as a family film.
      One thing I admire about Spielberg is that he knows when to stop, and doesn’t try to create ‘franchises’ by filming endless sequels.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pete, you are right about Dreyfus, he became a caricature of himself, hamming it up too much – but in this film, as in “Jaws”, he played a fully realized character with nuance…another great retro review of a true cinematic masterpiece.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I have definitely watched this one, Pete. Far too much special effects for me though, I found the story a bit of a drag. There’s not many Spielberg films I’ve liked but I liked Duel – always makes me think twice about overtaking tanker lorries.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Loved this movie also – it’s one of the best along with Kubrick’s 2001 – something to think about now that we are acknowledging that exoplanets contain life and that water is plentiful in the galaxy. Being a science fiction writer this was one of my visual inspirations – particularly the ship!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is my favorite Spielberg film.
    I bought the album and played it over and over.
    I love everything about it. I was just thinking of Richard Dreyfuss the other day wished he was still around making movies. I’m glad we share a similar affection for this iconic piece! It turned my summer upside down with a bolt of excitement.

    Liked by 2 people

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