CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND at 40: We’re Still Not Alone

As you may have heard, this year is the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For years I’ve said without hesitation that it’s my favorite Spielberg film, but without putting much thought into why. On the occasion of its theatrical re-re-re-release, I think it’s time to look back at just what makes this film so powerful.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind straddles the line between 1970s New Hollywood and the explosion of the blockbuster in the 1980s — more than perhaps any other film considering its complex release history. The theatrical cut was released in 1977, but Spielberg was allowed to recut and film additional sequences for a re-release in 1980 (which the studio sold on the promise of a glimpse inside the mothership at the end). The version currently playing in theaters is yet another recut, the “Collector’s Edition” first released in 1998/99, which preserves most of the material from the 1980 director’s cut while eliminating the (frankly unnecessary and underwhelming) footage inside the ship.

In any case the film’s production and release at the end of the 1970s, on the cusp of the 80s, offers a fascinating framework for considering the film on the level of narrative structure, performance, and thematic content. The high concept of alien life (and corresponding government cover-up) is never allowed to overpower the very personal, character-driven stories of Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian (Melinda Dillon). The emphasis on family gives the film an authenticity that grounds its characters; the story could have easily coasted on the spectacle of its visual effects, but placing such sympathetic, vulnerable people at its core allows Close Encounters to be more than just a sci-fi movie. Even the globetrotting investigation of UFO sightings by Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) takes time to establish characters’ motivations rather than simply jumping from one plot point to another. But primarily the film is driven by Roy’s inability to reconcile his family life with his search for answers. It would be easy to read Roy’s obsession as abandonment, yet Dreyfuss plays it with such vulnerability that our sympathies remain with him even as his behavior becomes more and more erratic.

At the heart of the film is the problem of communication. This is most obvious on the largest possible scale, as Lacombe and his team of researchers are attempting to decipher messages from outer space. But even on the personal level conflict arises through breakdowns in communication. The family life depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is chaotic, with dialogue and other noises overlapping to the point of near-incoherence (one might compare it to the cacophony of notes played by the mothership in the film’s third act). Meanwhile, Laughlin joins Lacombe to act as an interpreter between the French scientist and other, English speaking characters. Later, Laughlin serves as a different sort of translator when he alone recognizes a transmission of numbers as geographic coordinates. In the immediate aftermath of Roy’s first close encounter he can’t find the words to adequately describe his experience, and he resorts to dragging his family out in the middle of the night as though he might recreate the experience for them. This inability to articulate and translate is central to the behavior that drives his family away. Ultimately, the film expresses art as a kind of universal language. The witnesses’ obsessions manifest through visual art — drawings for Jillian and sculpture for Roy. Little Barry begins playing the same “greeting” tune sung by the witnesses in India. And, of course, we ultimately make contact with extraterrestrials through a language based in musical tones.

While Close Encounters of the Third Kind is most often described as science fiction, it owes much of its tone and structure to the conspiracy thriller boom of the 1970s. The antagonist, such that there is one, is the nebulous entity of “the government” and its efforts to conceal the truth and discredit eyewitnesses. Its depiction of the cover-up reflects the height of post-Watergate cynicism and paranoia, and it is tempered only by Lacombe and Laughlin’s more idealistic pursuit of answers (which in some ways runs parallel to Roy’s). Roy’s quest for truth, his rejection by authority figures, and even the ways his behavior alienates his loved ones calls to mind films like The Conversation. Were this fully in the mode of the conspiracy thriller, however, that cynicism and paranoia would override everything else in the film. Instead, the film plays it against Roy’s (and Lacombe’s) persistence and, to a point, idealism. While the film ends on a note of ambiguity, it is infused with the triumph of Roy’s successful journey and a sense of optimism for whatever might lie ahead.

That conflict between cynicism and optimism is key to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s success, and in its resolution cynicism is rejected. The film’s ending, while open to interpretation, hits not with nihilistic discouragement but with hope and wonder for what the future might hold. It is about believing in something bigger than ourselves, and in the beauty of making connections based on true understanding. While other films at the time took a pessimistic, even apocalyptic view of the world, Close Encounters of the Third Kind tells us to never stop pursuing the truth and to keep watching the skies.

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