Blast From The Past: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Our “Blast From the Past” series for 1977 would be incomplete without addressing one of Spielberg’s classic films. Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened in November of 1977 and went on to acclaim financial and critical success. It was one of the highest grossing films of the year domestically, only falling behind Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit. The film starred Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, a lineman in Indiana whose life is changed after an encounter with an unidentified flying object. The film also featured an excellent supporting cast in François Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, and Cary Guffey.
The film begins with a group converging in the Sonoran Desert when a flight squadron is discovered that had been missing for 30 years. Part of this group includes French scientist Claude Lacombe (Truffaut) and David Laughlin (Balaban), his American interpreter and cartographer. Other strange occurrences are noted such as a lost cargo ship appearing in the Gobi Desert and an unexplainable, near in-flight collision in Indiana. In Muncie, Indiana, a three-year-old boy, Barry (Guffey), is awakened by his toys operating on their own and follows an unseen figure outside, forcing his mother, Jillian (Dillon), to follow him. When widespread power outages cover Indiana, electrical lineman Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) is called out to investigate. During his investigation, he encounters one of the unidentified flying objects and ends his evening with a burn across his face and an obsessive fascination with the flying object. This relentless fascination is experienced not just by Neary but by several others and drives the rest of the story as they try to decipher what they’ve encountered and how to proceed.
For this film to be forty years old, it is still a beautiful and fascinating narrative to behold. From the moment those bright lights appear behind Richard Dreyfuss’ truck, one cannot help but be captivated by the events transpiring. Amazingly enough, the special effects still hold up well, and while its easy to tell the film is forty years old by the quality of the picture, it doesn’t detract from the impact of the story. Also, the effects at the end of the film are truly breathtaking.
However, the most striking aspect of this film for me is just how much Spielberg is a master storyteller. The way he begins this story with these enigmatic occurrences captures your attention and imagination within the first five minutes. He then couples that with the minimal use of these unidentified flying objects, which drives the curiosity of the audience. Roy Neary’s wife might think he’s crazy, but the audience is primed to believe that he’s not crazy at all. Spielberg embraces this unknown entity so well through the storyline and gives us moments where the aliens appear both nonthreatening and foreboding. Their physical absence from the majority of the storyline gives every small appearance significant weight and raises the stakes as the story continues.
The story is driven forward primarily through Richard Dreyfuss’ character, who he portrays so well. His journey gives the audience a flurry of emotions as he tries to reconfigure his life around the unexplainable thing that he’s experienced. However, the story is also partially carried by the character of French scientist Claude Lacombe. The performances by both men are truly great, and the balance of screen time granted to each character gives the audience better insight into what is happening and both characters' need for answers. Spielberg, of course, skillfully weaves all of these narratives together for a satisfying ending. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that continues to stand the test of time. Other people must agree as a limited theatrical release of the remastered film this September ended up grossing another three million dollars. If you haven’t ever seen this film, I highly recommend it, and even if you have, this is one that is worth revisiting time and time again.