In spite of the logistical challenges in putting the film together, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a Steven Spielberg classic.
Much like George Lucas and Star Wars, Steven Spielberg also continued working on Close Encounters. Ultimately, Spielberg kept working on it and gave us his ultimate version in 1998. Most of the reason for the Special Edition is because the studio wanted to go inside of the ship. In the end, Spielberg would remove the inside of the spaceship for the Director’s Cut. The film is all the better because of this decision. As a viewer, we don’t necessarily need to see inside the ship.
Like most of Steven Spielberg’s filmography, the filmmaker has something to say about broken families. I don’t have anything to say about this that hasn’t already been said. Would I have liked Roy Neary to stay with his family? Sure but Spielberg decided to have him leave with the aliens. This also isn’t an area in which I have personal experience. I don’t know what it’s like to be a child of divorce. If Spielberg makes the film a decade later, Neary never gets on the ship. He’s on the record about this. His becoming a father changed his worldview. Sure, he still gravitates towards telling sci-fi stories but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In a way, Spielberg becoming a father would also impact his on-screen storytelling. “It’s the one film I see that dates me,” Spielberg says in the making-of documentary.
Spielberg reunites with Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss (okay, he lobbied for the role) but the filmmaker brings another filmmaker into the cast, François Truffaut. This is Truffaut’s first role in an English language film. Moreover, it’s his only acting role in a film he didn’t direct. The other thing here is that Spielberg does the one thing that a lot of filmmakers would not do: cast a young child (Cary Guffey) in a major supporting role. Spielberg is able to get the casting to work only because of the things that were done behind the camera to get a reaction out of him.
John Williams is one of the greatest film composers of all time. I don’t have anything else to add about his Close Encounters score that hasn’t already been said. We’re talking about one of the iconic motifs in film history! And yet, Williams loses the Oscar to his own iconic score for Star Wars (my present ringtone, apologies if I don’t pick up the phone because I love the theme). When you combine Spielberg and Williams, you will always end up with movie magic.
One of the things that Spielberg does here is incorporate scenes from his high school film, Firelight. While I haven’t seen that film, one can only imagine the difference between making a film on a student budget or with studio money. Budget differences aside, you still have to deal with where the special effects are in the late 1970s. Mind you, Spielberg is also the type of filmmaker that will always go for practical effects first. The last part of the film is one of the logistical nightmares in filmmaking. However, Michael Kahn’s editing is one of the reason why it works as well as it does. This film also marks their first of many collaborations.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-winning cinematography features some glorious shots. The image of Barry (Cary Guffey) opening the door to the UFO’s orange light is one for the ages. There are so many splendid visuals in Spielberg’s filmography but this is a top ten moment for sure.
Visually, the designs are impressive especially for the late 1970s. You have to remember that at the same time Spielberg is filming Close Encounters, Lucas is working on Star Wars and building up ILM. The spaceship design couldn’t be more different but it’s not like we’re requiring a ship along the lines of the Millennium Falcon. In watching The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dennis Muren reveals that they placed R2-D2 on the mothership model. What a very clever easter egg! In any other year, it would be a travesty for Close Encounters to lose the Oscar for visual effects but the film was also up against the juggernaut that is Star Wars.
It’s funny though. Spielberg gets the deal to make this film first but decides to do Jaws beforehand. The decision to make Jaws first would turn out to be the best decision for his career. For one, the filmmaker ends up with more creative control to release the film with his vision.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the type of sci-fi film that doesn’t get made anymore.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Steven Spielberg
CAST: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, and François Truffaut