‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ at 34: Still Thrilling After All These Years

A couple of weeks ago, video footage of a UFO over “Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount” in Jerusalem caught a lot of people’s attention. On a similar note pertaining to the skies, it’s been reported that Earth could be getting a second sun in the sky, at least temporarily, as early as next year, and Nasa’s Kepler space telescope has found a planetary system much like our own 2000 light years from Earth. With all this seemingly scifi news in the foreground, it was fitting that last week in my storage room, I stumbled upon my old copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stephen Spielberg’s novel of his famous movie. But we’ll get to that later.

The UFO craze began in the ’40s after a purported flying saucer was discovered crashed in the desert in Roswell, New Mexico. Since then, we have been saturated with media about extraterrestrial life. Orsen Wells’s War of the Worlds caused a panic on his radio show in 1938 — long before we would even see the popular depiction of saucer-shaped UFOs on the TV screen. Not long after, scores of movies followed including, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and The Man who Fell to Earth (a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis; a 1976 film, starring David Bowie).

Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 cinematic ode to extraterrestrial life, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was reportedly inspired by a real life event he experienced as a boy when he and his father saw a meteor shower over New Jersey. His film also came at a time when UFOs were on the collective American mind. In 1973, The Center for UFO Studies was established by former U.S. Air Force scientist, J. Allen Hynek, and in 1975, the controversial Project Blue Book files (an enormous 20-year Air Force study of UFOs) were opened to the public at the U.S. National Archives.

The film follows a cast of characters, all caught up in a sudden influx of global UFO activity. The movie opens in the Mexican Sonoran Desert as French scientist and UFOligist, Claude Lacombe (played by François Truffaut) and cartographer, David Laughlin (played by Bob Baliban) discover five torpedo bomber planes lost during World War II, minus their pilots. Later, the two travel to India to find a mass of worshippers chanting five musical notes repeatedly. When asked where the sounds came from, they all point to the sky.

All of this activity plays second fiddle, however, to Indiana lineman Roy Neary (played by a magnificent Richard Dreyfuss), who is at the forefront of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After a mass power outage, Neary finds himself on a dark road with mysterious, blinding lights hovering above, and a mysterious force shaking his truck. The incident leads him into an obsession with UFOs and a mountain that he keeps seeing in his mind. He begins sculpting the mountain in shaving cream, in mashed potatoes, and eventually in mud that takes over his living room while his befuddled family looks on.

Nearby, Jillian Guiler (played by Melinda Dillon) is also painting the same mountain as strange lights begin to appear over the horizon and hover over her house. Her small son, Barry (played by Cory Gaffey), is playing the same five-note song on his toy xylophone — the same song the worshipers had been singing on the other side of the world. Soon after, the scene comes to a terrifying and unforgettable close as Barry is sucked out of the house through the doggie door and into the night sky.

Neary and Guiler eventually come together, bound by the fantastic happenings and visions they have, as the movie culminates atop Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower in one of the most fantastic scenes in film history. Neary and Guiler join Lacombe to watch as the aliens make contact through the famous five tone musical phrase, which is earlier determined to be the geographic coordinates of Devil’s Tower. As the notes play out, the characters and viewers are treated to a spectacular light show. The ethereal, pre-digital special effects hold up amazingly well in today’s CGI-saturated cinematic era.

The screenplay, which Spielberg finished after it was started by Paul Schrader, was based on a 1972 book by aforementioned Dr. J. Allen Hynek, called The UFO Experience. Interestingly, Hynek served as the film’s technical advisor and appeared briefly in the final scene. After Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released, Spielberg along with ghost writer, Leslie Elson Waller, wrote the book I just found in my storage room. This was Spielberg’s attempt to give us more of a good thing. The film version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was so brilliant, why wouldn’t viewers want more of it? A novel seems the next logical step.

The book isn’t bad, but it isn’t nearly as captivating as Spielberg’s cinematic masterpiece. Where Spielberg and Waller could have added on to scenes or gone into more detail, they wrote the book almost as if they were writing the screenplay all over again. This is not to say there aren’t well-written parts. The scene where Jillian’s house is overtaken by lights and appliances go berserk is amped up colorfully as is Roy’s obsession with the UFOs and Devil’s Tower. The story’s momentous final scene is good in the book, but it can’t touch the majesty of the end scene in the film.

An interesting thing about reading a book after you’ve seen the film is that you already have the character’s appearances fully formed in your mind when you begin. I clearly saw Dreyfuss as Neary, Dillon as Guiler, Trouffaut as Lacombe, Teri Garr as Neary’s exasperated wife, Ronnie, and little Cary Guffey as Barry. I imagine Spielberg and Waller felt the same way as they wrote the book. The novelization did expound on a good thing. You get more of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a different medium, but overall it still doesn’t deliver to the senses the way the film does.

Luckily for us, the film was later reissued in 1980 as Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition, and included additional scenes. Later in 1998, a “director’s cut” was released to home video, and in 2007, a 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition was released, which includes multiple versions of the film, a documentary, an interview with Spielberg about the movie, and a collector’s booklet.

The film received well-deserved accolades. It was nominated for eight Academy awards including: Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Melinda Dillon), Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Cinematography. In 2007, the film was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.

What makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind stand out is that it isn’t the usual UFO tale about “us vs them”, like Spielberg’s later remake of War of the Worlds. The struggle in Close Encounters is between humans – those who have had the vision and have been drawn to the extraterrestrials and those (the military) who are trying to keep it a secret.

The book is more two-dimensional where the film captures the essence of the story in all its three-dimensional glory, showing us that Spielberg’s vision is more substantial than the usual action-packed romp of laser beams and invasions. It’s a story about humanity’s search for something bigger out there and a search for whom we really are inside.