Film Review: ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

Close Encounters of the Third
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Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a daring film concept which in its special and technical effects has been superbly realized. Steven Spielberg’s film climaxes in final 35 minutes with an almost ethereal confrontation with life forms from another world; the first 100 minutes, however, are somewhat redundant in exposition and irritating in tone. Yet much advance public interest gives the Columbia Pictures release a strong commercial potential.

The near-$20 million production was shot in Wyoming, Alabama, California and India. Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips produced for Col and partner EMI. Spielberg utilized an enormous crew of creative-technical specialists to achieve some stunning effects which have a cohesion and unity that is, in comparison, lacking somewhat in his screenplay (or at least in the edited form of release prints).

Story involves a series of UFO appearances witnessed by Richard Dreyfuss, Indiana power company technician, and Melinda Dillon and her son Cary Guffey. Concurrent with this plot line are the maneuverings of a seemingly international and secret team of military and scientific personnel in which Francois Truffaut is a key member.

The early UFO manifestations vividly depict the strong electro-magnetic field exerted on people and objects. Dreyfuss’ entire life changes as he gets a fixation on an odd mountain-looking shape that, after overbearing and overdone emphasis, turns out to be Devil’s Tower in Wyoming where the UFOs seem to plan an earthly landing. Separately, Dillon’s son is kidnapped by a UFO, giving her a fixation.

Spielberg creates an uneasy tension throughout these first 100 minutes, though the tension eventually is more self-defeating. He has a rather misanthropic viewpoint of contemporary suburbia; add to this a tendency to many closeups (in Panavision, yet) and you have some irritating visual jerkiness; throw in what sounds like over-dubbed noise effects, overlapping dialog, a Dreyfuss household consisting of bewildered spouse Teri Garr (her second such casting this season) and three repulsive children, Truffaut talking French through interpreter Bob Balaban, and you have an audio cacophony as well.

Obviously all this was deliberate, to set up the climactic and oddly-pastoral encounter with the humanoids from another world. But the cumulative effect of the earlier audio-visual nightmare–not helped at all by some of the frenzied acting of the principals nor some mob scenes which seem like homage to Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” is to drive at least one viewer to near-distraction. This is unusual in films designed to reach a very broad, blockbuster-type mass audience.

But there’s no denying that the climax is an absolute stunner, literate in plotting, dazzling in execution and almost reverent in tone. (It’s just as well to forget an implicit vibration here that only in a military – scientific – technocratic dictatorship is there order, discipline and calm.) At the very least the denouement is light years ahead of the climactic nonsense of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Yet, in terms of real empathy with enduring human nature as it is (warts and all), “Close Encounters” lacks the warmth and humanity of George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

Parsing this film is not easy, and various descriptions sound at times negative. But that’s the problem: There’s no big positive rush here, instead a high-tension, nervous, uneasy, often heartless environment in which Dreyfuss and Dillon, supposedly being the audience’s reps in the story, are helpless flotsam. The uncompromising creative point of view, admirable in a professional sense, is pitched to an above-average level of intelligence. Post-release market research, designed to match audience satisfaction to various demographics, could make fascinating reading.

Spielberg takes credit for visual effects concepts, while Douglas Trumball wears the senior special effects credit. A slew of name cinematographers worked on the film, which began its initial production nearly two years ago. John Williams’ score is good, Joe Alves’ production design superb.

Breakeven on the film, including marketing costs, is in the area of about $30,000,000 in world rentals, which is a certainty. Between that rental range and the farther limits previously achieved by less than a dozen films, no prudent person can properly venture a guess until a picture begins to actually perform, because the orders of magnitude are too great, not unlike the extra terrestrial story elements embodied in “Close Encounters” itself. If the film grosses $50,000,000 or $60,000,000 or $100,000,000 or more in world rentals, it will have succeeded at all those levels. The danger in these mega-rental ranges is that nobody yet can tell upfront where a film will ultimately burn out.

[In 1980, film was replaced by a 132-minute version, with the central section tightened and extra material showing the inside of the mother ship at end. On posters, but not on prints, this was subtitled The Special Edition. In 1998 a 137-min. Collector’s Edition was issued on homevideo; this eliminates the inside of the mother ship but restores footage around the hero’s nervous breakdown.] 

1977: Best Cinematography, Special Achievment Award (sound effects editing).

Nominations: Best Director, Best Supp. Actress (Melinda Dillon), Art Direction, Editing, Original Score, Sound, Special Visual Effects

Film Review: ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

  • Production: Columbia. Director Steven Spielberg; Producer Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips; Screenplay Steven Spielberg, [Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, Paul Schrader, Jerry Belson]; Camera Vilmos Zsigmond, William A. Fraker, Douglas Slocombe, John Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs; Editor Michael Kahn; Music John Williams;; Art Director Joe Alves, Dan Lomino. Reviewed at Todd-AO Screening Room, L.A., Nov. 2, '77. (MPAA Rating: PG.)
  • Crew: (Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1977. Running time: 135 MIN.
  • With: Roy Neary - Richard Dreyfuss Claude Lacombe - Francois Truffaut Ronnie Neary - Teri Garr Jillian Guiler - Melinda Dillon Barry Guiler - Cary Guffey Interpretor Laughlin - Bob Balaban Project Leader - J. Patrick McNamara Wild Bill - Warren Kemmerling Farmer - Robert Blossom Jean Claude - Philip Dodds Neary Children - Shawn Bishop, Adrienne Campbell, Justin Dreyfuss Robert - Lance Hendricksen Team Leader - Merrill Connally Major Benchley - George Dicenzo