There were several titles, both prior to and during the course of writing, for our commentary on director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 feature film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Spielberg Face: The Movie, Proto-Super 8, Indianapolis Day (we just made that one up) and others that aren’t especially impliedly flattering for most well-known science-fiction movies since Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
That being vented more than said, our current title is justified in that, while carrying a deal of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s unseen extraterrestrial-fuelled plot advancement – and its photographic effects supervisor in Douglas Trumbull – Close Encounters of the Third Kind is seminal in that varied science fiction films and franchises – à la Super 8, Transformers, Independence Day, director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, (evidently) director Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds & 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark and even M Night Shymalan’s Signs (somewhat) – all seem to draw heavily from it.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say even director Richard Kelly’s short story-adapted 2009 film, The Box, but that’s just on a superficial level of the I-communicate-with-those-who-make-the-lightning line.
That being said, and as alluded to in the intro, this film is a proverbial goldmine for Spielberg-isms, with the following appearing recurringly:
- The Spielberg face: appearing more times than are reasonably countable, the trademark expression appears by itself and through and on glass several times during this film: for instance, when Barry Guiler spots the alien lights in his kitchen; when Roy sees the alien ship above his truck; and when the team sees the alien ship at the film’s end.
- The strained family unit: the Neary family becomes increasingly distraught, to the point of fracture, as Roy’s visions intensify; the Guiler family (temporarily) loses its son to the aliens in the film’s middle too.
- Over-the-shoulder shots: much like 1975’s Jaws, there are several of these, especially in office or laboratory-set scenes.
- The shooting star: similar to Jaws, there is a shooting star seen cutting across the night sky near the end of the film, when Roy and Jillian climb Devil’s Tower.
- Foreshadowing in unlikely places: while this is an especially subjective assertion, and also much like Jaws, director Spielberg uses musical toys (à la Barry’s clapping monkey), children (à la Barry’s unflinching attraction to the light), televisions (à la coming in advance of Roy’s brainwave) among others.
The script, perhaps more by intent than directorial trademarking, written by director Steven Spielberg, uses 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s unseen extraterrestrial-driven plot-advancement and allusions of a government coverup in the name of disease prevention, as seen in and around Wyoming in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Roy and Jillian receive the greatest degree of, for lack of better phraseology, culmination through vindication in their roles. The general, but subjectively seen plot, becomes clear when Roy has his epiphany whilst shaving, pre-dismissal and lasts until the open ending.
That also being said…
Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy and Melinda Dillon’s Jillian are the family deprivation-driven duo who are vindicated at the end of this film. They, the latter in a way reminiscent of Alex’s mother from Jaws, are unwavering in their quest for answers until the end of the film; the former even goes down to the secret airfield and departs with the visiting aliens. A shoutout to Cary Guffey, as being the unfailingly foreshadowingly curious Barry Guiler.
The score, for want of listening to the dedicated album a second time, carries part of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s mood without needing to deploy previously-written pieces of classical music, à la Herbert von Karajan’s take on the Blue Danube, to enhance its effect.
The cinematography, courtesy of the late director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond is heavy in metaphor – the silhouette-y ignorance of humanity versus the illumunation of the aliens, the looking-down-at-children shots, the looking-up-or-zooming-out-to-imply-the-scale-of-the-task shots, looking up with curiosity and the mass of distinct humanity versus the (largely) uniform aliens – and silhouette as was Jaws.
Slightly more curiously, this film feels, perhaps due to the work of photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, like Blade Runner before Blade Runner was a thing. The alien lights culminating in the flight of the larger alien ship at the end are particularly close to Blade Runner‘s 2019 Los Angeles in lighting and design.
With a tad more simplification than either Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or really any film, warrant(s), Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a memorably-shot, awe-inspiring and pop culture-perpetuating story of a man and a woman’s quest for answers amid an extraterrestrial visit. For want of seldom more impactful films, and in the runup to director Denis Villeneuve’s similarly-themed Arrival, check out Close Encounters of the Third Kind if you can.
Maybe I should add that to the list too…
(While the opinions and observations cited above are the author’s own, the following sources were used to acquire facts from: IMDb.com, LAVideoFilmmaker.com, SciFiScripts.com, Storify.com, TIME.com)
Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:
Plot: an Indiana-based ex-electrician seeks answers to his extraterrestrial visit-induced visions.
Prologue: a team of explorers find the lost Flight 19 of Bermuda Triangle fame in the Mexican desert; Indianapolis-based air traffic controls detect unidentifiable air traffic nearby; a rural Indiana boy is drawn to strange lights outside his house.
Act 1: Roy is called to duty by his boss, Earl; Roy spots the alien ships and chases them to a cliffside.
Act 2: Roy decides to bring his wife, Ronnie, and their family back to the cliffside road; they don’t spot anything.
Act 3: Roy later chooses to return to the cliffside for some UFO-spotting; government helicopters break up the gathering.
Act 4: Roy decides to visit Jillian’s USAF visit/press conference; Roy later succumbs to recreating his extraterrestrial visit-induced visions.
Act 5: Roy lets Ronnie go over his visions; he leaves for Devil’s Tower, Wyoming after making the connection between it and his visions.
Act 6: Roy finds Jillian in Wyoming; they jointly decide to head off to Devil’s Tower and are captured by the government.
Act 7: Roy removes his gas mask and attempts to convince his fellow captives the same; Roy and Jillian escape to the nearby Devil’s Tower.
Act 8: Roy takes Jillian’s hand and is saved from the government’s sleeping gas; the two discover and observe the hidden airfield and incoming alien ships.
Act 9: Roy chooses to run down to the airfield and observe the alien activity up close.
Act 10: Roy chooses to cooperate with the government and goes into the alien ship as part of the Mayflower crew.