PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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

What makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind stand out to this day is that it isn’t the usual UFO tale of “us vs them”, like Spielberg’s later remake of War of the Worlds; rather, it's very much a story about Earthlings.

Publisher: Dell Publishing
Length: 256 pages
Author: Steven Spielberg and Leslie Elson Waller
Book: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Format: paperback
Publication date: 1978-03
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, and Cary Guffey
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Film: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
US Release Date: 1977-16-11
UK Release Date: 1978-13-03

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.