Notable Festivals: Berlinale (Retrospective)
Academy Award Wins: Best Cinematography
Inducted into the National Film Registry- 2007
After the breakout success of 1975’s JAWS, director Steven Spielberg earned the privilege to pursue any project he desired. Instead of attaching himself to whatever high-profile project was currently circulating around town, he chose to go back to his roots. He updated the central idea behind his 1964 amateur feature, FIRELIGHT, a story about aliens descending on earth as told from the point of view of regular folks on the ground. Now with a big studio backing him—in this case, Columbia Pictures—Spielberg wanted to expand the story out on a grand scale. After having already completed what is essentially the rough draft of the film in his youth, Spielberg’s third professional feature—CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)—is widely considered in several film circles to be his first master work.
Spielberg’s story begins in rural Indiana, when an electrical engineer named Roy sees (and subsequently chases after) a fleet of mysterious, blindingly-bright aircraft zipping through the night sky. He soon grows obsessed with seeing them again, and is consumed by visions of an ambiguous mountain shape. Meanwhile, a woman named Jillian Guiler is having unexplained experiences of her own and seeks out Roy’s assistance after her son is abducted in the middle of the night. And on the other side of the globe, French scientist Claude Lacombe and his aides have come to the conclusion that a string of recent, mysterious phenomena are alien in nature. These story threads converge at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where an elaborate facility has been constructed out of the geological formation’s bedrock in a bid to establish contact with the extraterrestrials. And once they do, their understanding of the universe is fundamentally altered.
Richard Dreyfuss, who had first appeared for Spielberg in JAWS previous, plays the protagonist, Roy Neary. In stark contrast to JAWS’ Hooper, Neary is a clean-cut family man, and something of a brute. His obsession with his mountainous visions spirals out of control, as does his grasp on his own family, who increasingly fear for his sanity. This is easily one of Dreyfuss’ best performances, definitely his strongest one for Spielberg, who has come to use Dreyfuss as something like an avatar when the director decides to inject some of his own psyche into a character.
Famed French New Wave director Francois Truffaut—helmer of the groundbreaking 400 BLOWS (1959)—was Spielberg’s first choice for the scientist Lacombe, and an unconventional one at that. The nouvelle vague style (that Truffaut helped to invent) greatly influenced a younger Spielberg, who was elated to be working with one of his heroes. Truffaut plays Lacombe as a sophisticated, urbane academic, and holds his own mightily against Dreyfuss. The inclusion of the acclaimed director to the cast lent a great deal of prestige to the picture, and even though one might reasonably expect two directors on one production would butt heads, Truffaut was gracious enough to submit himself entirely to Spielberg’s direction. Class act.
Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perhaps the biggest names involved in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, although they can’t help but be eclipsed by the celebrity of Spielberg himself. The supporting cast doesn’t fare any better, but they turn in solid, effective performances. As Roy’s wife, Ronnie, Teri Garr gives a good turn as a beleaguered woman who runs out of patience with her husband. However, the character itself is underwritten, and she ultimately fails to transcend the trappings of the archetype. Melinda Dillon, as fellow believer Jillian Guiler, proves a better companion for Roy, but Spielberg forces a romantic angle between the two that feels forced. Veteran character actors Carl Weathers and Lance Henricksen– albeit before the “veteran” part– appear in brief cameos here, but their presence is more amusing than notable.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND finds Spielberg re-teaming with his director of photography from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, the venerable Vilmos Zsigmond. The film’s visual language deals predominantly in beams of light, so Zsigmond adopts a high-key approach that accentuates the bright blue lights of the alien craft. Once again, Spielberg shows little regard for lens flares leaking into his shot, which is suitable for the blinding wonder of the film’s starships. His embrace of lens flares has become massively influential in modern filmmaking, especially in the sci-fi genre.
One very striking aspect of the film’s cinematography is the numerous panoramic vista shots, complemented by the wider field of view afford by the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Many of them are notable for the sheer number of stars visible in the night sky, which is next to impossible to capture using natural methods. Instead, these shots were accomplished using the tried-and-true matte painting technique. While it can’t quite compete with the realism that CGI-based methods have to offer, matte painting has a charm all its own that adds to the timelessness of the story.
Spielberg’s camerawork in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND marks a shift away from the experimental, nouvelle vague techniques that peppered his television and early film work, and towards a formalist, locked-off aesthetic (necessitated by the heavy use of pre-motion-control/in-camera effects shots like the aforementioned matte painting joins, etc.). Another classic Spielberg technique finds its first concrete use here: the dolly-in “wonder/awe” shot. By this I mean: a character looks up in wonder/awe at something past the camera as it dollies in on the subject. This could be seen as an evolution of the low-angle compositions that Spielberg frequently uses, and has become a staple of his spectacle-based work. For instance, look at the compositions in the big “Devil’s Tower” reveal sequence in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND compared to its counterpart, the brachiosaurus reveal in JURASSIC PARK (1993). They are essentially the same shot, with a colossal object slowly revealed from the point of view of the subjects as the camera cranes up and the score swells.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND also sees the solidifying of Spielberg’s core team of collaborators. Joe Alves, production designer for JAWS and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), returns to give CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND a lived-in, every-man reality to the production. After dumping Verna Fields, who won an Oscar for her work on JAWS, Spielberg hired Michael Kahn as his editor. Much like John Williams, Kahn has since become an integral part of Spielberg’s team, cutting nearly every film the director has made to this day. Doug Trumbull, who created the groundbreaking effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), lends his expertise to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well, giving a wondrous believability and tangible weight to the UFO sequences that still comes across as realistically as they did over thirty years ago.
John Williams once again returns to Spielberg’s fold, making for their third consecutive collaboration. Williams crafts a grand, romantic score that gives a sense of wonder to the unfathomable reaches of the cosmos. In the 1980 Special Edition, he even riffs on this further by playing a new arrangement of “When You Wish Upon A Star” when Dreyfuss’ character enters the starship. Much like the iconic two-note theme of JAWS, Williams is able to construct an equally-recognizable theme for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND using five notes. This fragment has a diagetic purpose within the narrative, whereby music is used as a form of communication between the scientists and the aliens. Because of music’s mathematical properties, it is truly a universal language that can be understood across cultures, so why not use it to communicate with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization? Regardless, William’s five-note theme instantly became part of pop culture, and has been parodied and referenced countless times since.
Due to Spielberg having complete creative control, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is perhaps one of the most “Spielberg-ian” of his early films. It introduces many of the hallmarks that would become his aesthetic: the suburban/ Americana setting, WW2-era imagery (the opening sequence with the lost fighter planes), and the sense of childlike wonder and innocence inherent in Spielberg’s awed approach to the story (rather than taking a fearful tack). There’s even a guy who runs to hide from the aliens in the bathroom, much like the lawyer in JURASSIC PARK hides from the T-Rex. The most prominent Spielberg-ian conceit is the estranged father trope, which is given focus as one of the main storylines of the film. As Roy descends deeper into his obsession, he drives his wife and kids to the point of fleeing from him out of neglect. Once they’re gone and he gets to Devil’s Tower, he proceeds to forget all about them, even going so far as to kiss another woman and leave Earth behind indefinitely to travel with the aliens across the stars. It’s a peculiar choice on Spielberg’s behalf for the character to indulge in behavior that, while probably justified in his own mind, is inherently misguided in the audience’s perspective. If anything, it suggests a sympathetic exploration of Spielberg’s own father’s reasons for dissolving their family. In other words: trying to put himself in his father’s shoes. Of course, Spielberg made CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND while he was thirty and single, so he had yet to experience a family of his own. He has admitted in later years that were he to re-make the film now that he’s got seven kids, he would never have Roy get on that ship and abandon his family.
There’s a few other various observations I made while watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. One is the presence of some strangely blatant branding; the conspicuous inclusion of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola imagery seems like a half-baked attempt at product placement. I remember seeing in a making-of featurette that this was due to an idea whereby the aliens would attempt to establish contact using imagery familiar to the population (hence huge corporate logos), but a coherent follow-through is never applied towards this end. There’s also the notable presence of a TV playing LOONEY TUNES in the background of a scene, which doesn’t say much on its own but is a subtle foreshadowing of Spielberg’s eventual involvement with Warner Brothers’ 90’s-era re-launch cartoon, TINY TOONS.
A true labor of love, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was released to great financial and critical success. Spielberg’s optimistic approach made for one of the first Hollywood films to portray aliens as benevolent ambassadors, and not destructive invaders. The financial windfall from the film secured Spielberg’s reputation as a dependable filmmaker of blockbuster spectacles, and even led directly to his first directing nomination at the Academy Awards. He didn’t win it, but his film did take away two other Oscars: one for Sound Editing and the other for Zsigmond’s striking cinematography. Like JAWS before it, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2007. It is widely recognized as the definitive film about UFOs, and has been an inspiration to countless of filmmakers who aspire to follow in Spielberg’s footsteps.
In the years since its release, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has been released in no fewer than three separate cuts. Spielberg was initially unsatisfied with his first cut, which he had to rush out to meet a December deadline imposed by a financially-struggling Columbia Pictures. So in 1980, he obtained permission to re-cut the film to his satisfaction, but with the stipulation that he shoot new footage showing the inside of the ship so that the studio would have something to hinge a marketing campaign on. Spielberg complied, but quickly realized that the interior of the alien craft should have never been shown. It wasn’t until 2001 that Spielberg was able to go back and create a third cut, dubbed The Director’s Cut, whereby he condensed the best parts of both prior cuts and restored the original ending. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to what is the definitive, superior cut of the film, but logic would appear to dictate that honor probably would go to The Director’s Cut.
For his third professional feature film (and his first done outside Universal, his home base studio), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND shows a full realization of Spielberg’s unique vision and promise. The freedom he earned from the success of JAWS manifested itself in creative control and final cut privileges on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, arguably making it his first true auteur work.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has endured for over thirty years against a yearly onslaught of new films by continuing to capture our imaginations and cast our eyes up towards the stars. And as long as we wonder about our place in the heavens, Spielberg’s vision will continue to dazzle us.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Sony Pictures.
Produced by: Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips, Clark L. Paylow
Written by: Steven Spielberg
Director of Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Production Designer: Joe Alves
Edited by: Michael Kahn
Special Effects by: Doug Trumbull
Original Score: John Williams