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That Moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): First Encounter

REVIEW: On the outskirts of the Sonoran Desert, in a dusty Spanish-speaking town, a French scientist and his interpreter are having a very strange day. It seems that during the previous night, Flight 19, a squadron of 5 World War II TBM Avengers came in for a landing. Problem is, they took off 40 years earlier on the other side of the continent and were presumed lost at sea over the Bermuda Triangle. They look brand new, have most of their tanks full of fuel, and there’s no sign of the pilots. An old man, with half his face appearing to be slightly sunburned, witnessed the event and claims that the sun came out at night, and “it sang to him.” Meanwhile, operators in an air traffic control tower in Indianapolis are having an odd exchange between two airliners who claim to have had near miss collisions with UFOs, but neither want to file a report. Not far away though, 3-year-old Barry Guiler wakes up as his room full of toys start operating on their own. Curious, he leaves his bedroom and finds something (or someone) in the kitchen before he runs out in the open field behind the house pursuing his new friends. His mother gives chase, and brings him home, but not for long. The spaceships return and kidnap Barry. Soon after, the scientist and his assistant are now in the Gobi desert and discover a cargo ship stuck in a dune. Naturally, this raises some concerns because A) cargo ships are rarely, if ever seen in the desert, and B) this one is the SS Cotopaxi, a massive tramp steamer that was lost in 1925 in, you guessed it, the Bermuda Triangle.

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Columbia Pictures

During all of this, there is Roy (Dreyfuss). He works for the electric company in Indiana, and as massive blackouts are getting reported from all over, he hops in his truck to check the lines. On a country road, hopelessly lost, he stops to look as his map. A set of headlights roll up behind and Roy waves them past. A little while later, he stops again by a railroad crossing and another set of lights pulls up, shining in the truck’s rearview mirror. Roy waves them past, but this set, seen only by the audience, doesn’t drive past. Instead, they rise straight up in the air! What the . . .? Turns out, Roy is about to have himself an encounter. This one of a second kind. No, that’s not a typo (see scale below). As soon as it starts, it ends, and the silent UFO jets off with Roy in hot pursuit. It is the start of an obsession that will ruin his family, wreck his career, and send him chasing a mystery that begins with a dab of shaving cream and ends with a journey to Devils Tower.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is not a typical alien movie. As he would do again several yeas later with E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, Close Encounters is about beings from another world that have not come for domination or conquest, but as explorers. They are not interested in harm but in communication. This was a new direction in sci-fi alien first contact films, as predominately, the motive for coming to earth was to attack or take over. Spielberg instead goes for wonder, as he is now famous for doing (though a few decades later would jump on the bandwagon and give us his rendition of War of the Worlds). Imaginative, beautifully shot, acted and scored, Close Encounters is nothing short of a modern masterpiece.


That Moment In: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Scene Setup: Power outages have swept across the county and Roy is in his utility truck, looking for downed lines or a failed junction box. Pulling off near a railroad crossing, he checks his map. Across the way, a stand of mailboxes violently begins to shutter, flags popping up and lids flying open. There’s no wind, so . . . ? Startled, he shines a flashlight, but that suddenly goes black just as his truck’s engine sputters quiet. From above, beams of brilliant light pour down.

Why it matters: Right from the film’s opening frame, there is something different about the feel of this movie. Authentic? Maybe. Realistic? In many ways. Either way, the beginning is intriguing, despite the fact that there is no doubt about what is happening. One only needs to read the title of the movie to know what is behind the mystery. Still, by the time we get to Roy out on the road, enough curiosity has been established that a pay-off is due. And that pay-off is grand! We first met Roy just before. He is an archetypal everyman – not extraordinarily handsome, but grounded and responsible. He’s got a family and a loving wife, enjoys model trains and wants to take his kids to see Pinocchio at the local theater. We see he is intelligent, a problem solver, and good with communication. These are strong traits and we identify with him immediately. So when the aliens arrive, we sympathize with him as how the encounter transforms him.

More: Who doesn’t like an alien movie? Most are tiresome though, formulaic and redundant with mankind outnumbered and on the cusp of defeat only to have it turned around in the end. Some challenge us with something different though, such as The Man Who Fell To Earth, District 9, Cocoon, and one of our favorites, Starman. These films, and more like it, think of extraterrestrial life as more than conquerors. They are explores, and discoverers, some are lost and abandoned, some need our help, but all have a kind of, well, humanity. The aliens in Close Encounters are exactly like the figures from our imagination, based on the tropes that have become a staple of those claiming to have made contact: grayish little people with big eyes, long fingers, and slits for mouths. They apparently are not new to our world, having abducted us feeble little earthlings for quite some time. Spielberg takes that and just about every other saucer man myth and plays them up as real, though it’s hard to know for sure about the anal probing. That’s not really addressed. We’re gonna go ahead and say yes, yes that happened. Either way, as they come upon Roy, it’s the first time we see their ships and we get a sense of what they’re up to as they go about shining their beams of lights on this and that, obviously inspecting, examining, gathering. When they fixate on Roy, they zap him with something quick, and from that moment on, he is never the same. What we learn later is he has been chosen. Lucky him. Let’s watch:

 

So what exactly is a “third Kind” close encounter and how does one know if it’s happening to them?

Well, back in the early 1970s, as the UFO craze was nearing its peak, an astronomer and UFO researcher named J. Allen Hynek (who was a consultant on this film) wrote the definitive book on the classification of alien encounters because damn it, back then people were getting sucked up into Martian spacecraft left and right and someone needed to get straight just what was happening to whom and how. Good on Hynek for coming up with it first. His initial list had six parts, but because obviously that wasn’t enough, other UFO researchers tacked on a few more. To keep it simple, we present the first three (with commentary). To read the entire list, go here.

Close Encounters of the First Kind or “Okay, Who Threw the Hub Cap?”

Official: Visual sightings of an unidentified flying object seemingly less than 500 feet away that show an appreciable angular extension and considerable detail

Our take: We’re gonna go with Agent Kay on this: “There was no alien. The flash of light you saw in the sky was not a UFO. Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus.” Thanks, Kay.

Close Encounters of the Second Kind or “No More Mixing Spicy Italian and That Quart of Moonshine My Pappy Gave Me” 

Official: A UFO event in which a physical effect is alleged. This can be interference in the functioning of a vehicle or electronic device; animals reacting; a physiological effect such as paralysis or heat and discomfort in the witness; or some physical trace like impressions in the ground, scorched or otherwise affected vegetation, or a chemical trace.

Our take: This time, we’ll let Merrill set it straight: “This crop stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind or “Crap, I was wrong about One and Two”

Official: UFO encounters in which an animated creature is present. These include humanoids, robots, and humans who seem to be occupants or pilots of a UFO.

Our take: Okay, Captain Hiller, take it away: “Welcome to earth! Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”


One of the more enchanting things about Spielberg’s alien movie is the music. And we don’t mean the magnificent score by Spielberg’s go-to composer, John Williams, but with the language used to communicate with the aliens. It’s often accepted that mathematics is the “universal” language, and that the best possible method to chat with our outer space friends would be to use this language to say hi. Seems perfectly sound to us though we have trouble enough with basic addition (2+2 is Chicken!). In the film, everything is done with musical tones (and a few hand gestures). The UFOs “sing” to their witnesses and in the end, is how we and the extra-terrestrials break the ice. The five-note tune is now as well known as Williams’ other two-note tune for a certain very scary shark. As the men attempting to understand say, the aliens are trying to teach basic vocabulary and it’s a marvel to think that it isn’t words we must learn but music. Let’s watch.


"Honey, the new coffee table is ready!"

Richard Dreyfuss is perhaps best known for Jaws, but he is at his best here. He plunges into the role with such voracity that his obsession feels like it’s going to make him implode. In the film, his actions border on lunacy. So much so, his wife feels forced to grab the children and run away. The morning she does is harrowing to watch. Roy is consumed by a vision that he cannot escape. First in the shaving cream, and then in his mashed potatoes, wherever he goes, he sees a shape the he is convinced has meaning. What is it? At last, he begins work on a monumental reproduction of this image, collecting and tossing dirt, blocks, bricks, shrubs, and trash. Tossing it all into the house through an open window, the neighbors suspect something is off. Roy’s wife, played by the wonderful Terri Garr (who we just visited in our post on Tootsie) is frantic. It becomes all too much and she finally drags the family away.

Spielberg has since regretted this decision, feeling it was wrong to have Roy abandon his family. Perhaps he is right, but there is also a tragedy that must be explored if we are to accept that these creatures from another world are marking specific humans to join them.


What will be our first contact, if ever, with another life form? It surely will happen one day. Right? Perhaps it won’t be like we image, and our new friends will be something beyond what we can even fathom, but until then, we have the movies. Close Encounters remains the best non-violent, and probably more realistic depiction of what an encounter might look like. If anything, it is one we wish would happen. Well, as long as anal probing is off the table.

There is a slow transition in the film that takes its time but becomes not just clear, but heavily eluded to by film’s end. That is the idea of hope and dreams and fantasy. Muddled and dark in the beginning, there is no music, only scenes of confusion and mystery. It is heavily grounded and fervently realistic. As we come to the end, as the brilliant lights of the mother ship wash over the awe-struck men and women standing as human’s first witnesses to true alien life-forms, we hear nothing but music. It swells and raises us up, even, for a moment, playing “When You Wish Upon A Star” as Roy becomes the sole traveler selected by the creatures to join them on board. In the special edition DVD, we see Roy actually go inside the vessel, and see what he sees, which we think was a mistake, but does reveal even more of the dream-like quality of the encounter. For us, the first and second acts are the strongest, and even though most of the Devils Tower scenes are engaging, by the time the crowd of painfully obvious rubber-suited little kids as aliens emerge from inside the space craft, it loses a lot of the spectacle. Still, the film is a hallmark of the genre and remains one of the most enjoyable aliens movies of all time.


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Director:

Steven Spielberg

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