Filmsite Movie Review
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is director/writer Steven Spielberg's first film after the enormously successful blockbuster Jaws (1975). Appearing in the late 1970s, it was a soulful, beguiling, magical, and benevolent look at 'close encounters.' Although the film appeared during the post-Watergate period and exhibited an obvious distaste for government intervention, its optimistic, loving portrayal of alien encounters was unusual, and set it apart from most science-fiction alien-encounter films of an earlier era. The film's proposed original title was to be "Watch the Skies," the closing words from the science-fiction classic The Thing From Another World (1951). One of the film's posters declared: "We are not alone."

The transcendent film followed the odyssey of various characters, including an obsessed, middle-class power lineman named Roy Neary (Dreyfuss, who had earlier appeared in Spielberg's Jaws, but was offered the part only after tough-actor Steve McQueen declined) and a distraught mother named Gillian (Dillon), and her young son Barry (Guffey), as they are inexplicably lured to a volcano-like mountain in Wyoming, to experience a spectacular, extra-terrestrial encounter. As a high school junior, Spielberg's first feature film, shot in 8 mm, was Firelight (1964) - the inspirational precursor to this film, about a town terrorized by UFOs.

The film was shot in various locales worldwide: at Devils Tower in Wyoming, Alabama, California, Mexico, and India. Spielberg also had cast notable director Francois Truffaut in the film in a major role (modeled after French UFO expert Jacques Vallee). The film resembled, in part, aspects of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), and various portions and themes of Close Encounters would be repeated in Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

The screenplay (finished by Spielberg from an original script by Paul Schrader) was based upon the book, The UFO Experience (1972), written by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who served as the film's technical advisor (and appeared in a bit cameo part during the final scene).

The highly personal, expensive project of Spielberg's was first released for Columbia Studios in 1977 - then, a re-edited theatrical Special Edition, authorized by the director himself, was released three years later in 1980, with some tightening of the original version (i.e., cutting the scene in which Roy Neary goes crazy and throws dirt into his family's house to recreate his vision of the mountainous mound, and adding footage to the scene of the discovery of the ship in the Gobi desert), plus some additional scenes - mostly footage of Neary's entrance into the interior of the giant spacecraft at the film's conclusion. Spielberg also released his favored 'director's cut' version in 1998 (without the extended finale), and a 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition in 2007.

This awe-inspiring film is one of the most dazzling UFO science fiction films ever made, although it has pre-digital special effects. Douglas Trumbell's visual and special effects of the Mother Ship are spectacular, ushering in - with Lucas' Star Wars (1977) of the same year - a flood of Hollywood films featuring special effects. It was Columbia Pictures' biggest grossing film up to that time, and helped to usher in the era of the blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy film.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominated it for eight awards: Best Supporting Actress (Melinda Dillon), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Cinematography. Its sole award was for Best Cinematography by cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond, but it was also honored with a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing.

Publicity for the film distinguished the varying levels of encounters with aliens:

of the First Kind
Sighting of a UFO

of the Second Kind
Physical Evidence
(of an Alien Landing)

of the Third Kind
Contact (with Aliens)


The opening scene is the first of over a half dozen set-pieces of 'close encounters,' all seemingly unconnected events, that provide clues, which ultimately culminate in the extraordinary climax of the film. There are numerous 'sightings' and calls from a mothership in outer space, signaled by five-notes. A French UFO expert deciphers a way to replicate the integral five notes (similar to Disney's "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio (1940)), and lure the mothership to land on Earth at a volcanic formation - a geographic focal point. Through music, images, and dialogue, the random scenes of the storyline are masterfully coalesced together.

Plot Synopsis

First Close Encounter: Sonora Desert, Mexico

The film begins in darkness following some initial credits - as orchestral sounds build in volume, a brilliant flash of light fills the screen. [Communication, in the form of the interplay between music (sounds) and light (images), plays a significant role in the film.] A jeep arrives, in the present day, at its destination deep in the Sonora Desert, in a sand-swept village in northern Mexico. It is difficult for the waiting Mexican Federales Police to hear the words of the team leader over the howling sandstorm: "Are we the first?...Are we the first to arrive here?"

Shouting over the storm in Mexican, another of the Federales is impossible to understand without an interpreter. A second car arrives, and the newcomers lean into the wind, holding onto their caps. One of the men, identifying himself as a cartographer ("I'm a mapmaker") and not a professional interpreter, David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is able to "translate French into English and English into French." Laughlin recognizes the French-speaking scientific team leader, Claude Lacombe (French director Francois Truffaut in his American acting debut, playing a role based upon French UFO expert Jacques Vallee) from his appearance at the Montsoreau conference.

Lacombe: How long have you been working on this project?
Laughlin: I've been with the American team from the beginning. In fact, I saw you at the Montsoreau conference which ended well, especially for you. Especially for the French. If it isn't too late - my congratulations.

They are summoned by one of the Americans, shouting and pointing: "They're all there, all of them!" Everyone runs through the sandstorm, which begins subsiding, to a collection of vintage fighter aircraft from World War II - in pristine condition. Lacombe orders the serial numbers of the planes transcribed off their engine blocks. Laughlin is confused: "What the hell is happening here?" One of the mission project leaders (J. Patrick McNamara) explains:

Project Leader: It's that training mission from the Naval Air Station in Ft. Lauderdale...
Laughlin: Who flies crates like these anymore?
Project Leader: No one. These planes were reported missing in 1945.
Laughlin: But it looks brand new. Where's the pilot? I don't understand. Where's the crew? Hey! How the hell did it get here?

Laughlin poses unanswerable questions, as the leader finds personal effects in the cockpit of one of the planes - sepia photographs and a 1945 calendar from a bar in Pensacola, Florida. The vintage torpedo bombers have charged batteries and full fuel tanks. One after another, the engines of the planes are throttled up and brought to life. Trying to figure out the enigma, Lacombe is brought to a cantina to speak to one of the local Mexicans who was an eyewitness to the inexplicable events that happened the previous night. The old derelict's (Eumenio Blanco) half-crazed face is brightly sunburned and he sheds tears of joy:

Old Man: El sol salio anoche y me canto!
Translator: He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.

Laughlin gazes up to an unfocused point in space and time as the sand-swept scene shifts to the sweeping viewer of a radar screen at Air Traffic Control, Indianapolis Center.

Second Close Encounter: Indianapolis, Indiana Air Traffic Control Center

Air traffic controllers, almost three thousand miles away from the Mexican desert, keep watch over the skies above Indiana. They monitor pilot's communications, airplane locations, and general aircraft activity to keep the skies safe:

AirEast Pilot (Roy E. Richards): Indianapolis Center, do you have any traffic for AirEast 31?
Air Traffic Controller: AirEast 31, negative. The only traffic I have is a TWA L-1011 in your six o'clock position. Range - fifteen miles. There's an Allegheny DC-9 in your twelve o'clock position, fifty miles. Stand by one. I'll take a look at Broadband.
AirEast Pilot: AirEast 31 has traffic two o'clock, slightly above and descending.
Air Traffic Controller: AirEast 31, Roger. I have a primary target about that position now. I have no known high-altitude traffic. Stand by one. I'll check Low [Altitude]. Over...
AirEast Pilot: AirEast 31. The traffic's not lower than us. He's one o'clock now, still above me and descending.
Air Traffic Controller: AirEast 31. Can you say aircraft type?
AirEast Pilot: Negative, Center. No distinct outline. To tell you the truth, the target is rather brilliant. It has the brightest anti-collision lights I think I've ever seen - alternating white to red. The colors are a little striking.
TWA Pilot: Center, this is TWA 517. Traffic now looks like extra bright landing lights. I thought AirEast had his landing lights on.

As the not-so-routine communications continue, a few of the other Traffic Controllers crowd around the computerized radar screen as an UNK (Unknown) radar blip in the air-position display shows up next to the other two planes. The controllers can hardly comprehend what they are seeing - an imminent air collision between the two planes, attempting to avoid the "extra bright" and fast-moving aircraft near them. The controller orders evasive action by the AirEast and Allegheny pilots to avoid a catastrophe:

AirEast Pilot: OK Center. AirEast 31. The traffic has turned. He's heading right for my windshield. We're turning right... [A CONFLICT ALERT sounds]
Air Traffic Controller: AirEast 31, descend and maintain flight level three-one-zero. Break, Allegheny triple four. Turn right thirty degrees immediately...
AirEast Pilot: AirEast 31, Roger. The traffic is quite luminous and is exhibiting some non-ballistic motion. Over.
Air Traffic Controller: Roger, AirEast 31. Continue to send at your discretion, over.
AirEast Pilot: OK, Center. Center pilot's discretion is approved. The traffic is approaching head-on...and really moving. Went by us, right now. That was really close.

One of the supervisors leans over the controller's shoulder to document the unidentified flying object, but the two pilots who are involved in the incident decline to report the unusual circumstances:

Supervisor: Ask them if they want to report officially.
Air Traffic Controller: TWA 517, do you want to report a UFO? Over. [No response] TWA 517, do you want to report a UFO? Over.
TWA Pilot: Negative. We don't want to report.
Air Traffic Controller: AirEast 31, do you wish to report a UFO? Over.
AirEast Pilot: Negative. We don't want to report one of those either.
Air Traffic Controller: AirEast 31, do you wish to file a report of any kind to us?
AirEast Pilot: I wouldn't know what kind of report to file, Center.
Air Traffic Controller: AirEast 31, me neither. I'll try to track traffic and destination, over.

Third Close Encounter: Muncie, Indiana

On a summer, star-lit, breezy night in Muncie, Indiana, a young innocent child named Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) awakens from a dreamy sleep in his country house. The blowing trees outside his window cast moving shadows across his pillow and rustle the curtains. Inexplicably but intentionally, a mechanical toy monkey on his dresser begins moving manically - it noisily clashes its two cymbals together. Barry sits up from the noise and clamor, noticing that other mechanical objects and toys in his room are buzzing and have also sprung into action - his phonograph player begins to spin, the head of a ghoulish monster turns red and the figure moves its outstretched hands, and his play-toy vehicles start cruising around. As the aliens converge, a round beam of light dances on the wall of the stairway - he follows it down as it leads him out to the screen door of the porch. Through the door, he can see more brilliant light, and drifting smoke.

When he hears a sound behind him, the boy turns toward the kitchen - Coke cans drip their contents onto the floor in front of the opened refrigerator. Grocery items (egg cartons, raw meat, carrots, bacon, etc.) are in a messy heap that lead toward the pet-door. With an enchanted look on his face, as if called by an invisible presence (off-screen) that only he senses, Barry irresistibly follows the sounds and is spirited away by the aliens into a field.

Upstairs, Barry's young single mother Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) is roused from her sleep by an invasion of her son's activated toys and the fact that her television set has turned on, airing an episode of the mid-1970s TV show "Police Woman" starring Angie Dickinson. Thinking it's her son playing a trick on her, she calls out for him: "Barry? Honey?" But when she enters her son's room, he is missing. Still grasping one of the moving toys, she sees a gleeful Barry running from the house toward the woods, giggling and amused as he disappears into the night. She entreats him to stop, fearfully but helplessly calling: "Barry! Barry!" Shortly later, Jillian searches desperately for her son near their home, using a flashlight to guide her way. Distraught, she calls out: "Barry! Barry!"

Fourth Close Encounter: Muncie, Indiana
A Close Encounter of the First Kind

In a Muncie, Indiana suburban home in Middle America, family-man and blue-collar power company lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is playing with a toy train set in the center of his family's cluttered living room, while instructing his 8 year-old son Brad (Shawn Bishop) about fractions. His wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) reminds him that he has promised everyone a movie that weekend (and Brad adds "Goofy Golf"), but then she complains about his assorted rusty equipment, tools and objects on her kitchen's breakfast table ("This can cause tetanus!"). Roy peruses the movie ads and suggests Disney's Pinocchio (1940) for the entire family the next evening, but Brad sneers: "Who wants to go see some dumb cartoon rated G for kids?" Meanwhile, his younger son Toby (Justin Dreyfuss) has been noisily and destructively bashing a plastic doll against the younger child Silvia's (Adrienne Campbell) crib and has dismembered it. Roy gives his two sons a choice - "Goofy Golf" or the movie Pinocchio, and they overwhelmingly vote for golf. The television is playing the four-hour movie, The Ten Commandments (1956) - because of its length, Roy is allowing his children to see only half of it: "I told them they'd watch only five commandments."

His wife answers an emergency phone call from foreman Earl, who asks for Roy - one of his power company's technicians:

Neary, get into your truck and report to line N in Tolono. We're losing power across the grid. Has the outage hit you yet?

As he asked about the power outage, the lights go out in the Neary household. All of the other lights throughout town begin to go dark as the progressive power failure spreads quickly across the power grid. Soon, the entire area has been engulfed in darkness.

In a memorable scene, Roy is lost on the road (his wife mentioned earlier that he often "can't drive at night" without her providing directions) when sent to investigate the power blackout. He chuckles to himself: "Help, I'm lost." While his face is buried in a roadmap to get his bearings, he sees a set of bright lights approaching from behind his truck. Without looking, he casually waves on the car, and is reprimanded by the passenger: "You're in the middle of the road, jack-ass." He proceeds to a railroad crossing and pulls to a screeching stop to once again check his map. Another set of bright lights approaches behind him - they illuminate the interior of his truck with brilliant light. Again, he waves the vehicle past while engrossed in studying his map. But instead of going around, the intense lights rise straight up like a rocket above his truck.

The first indication that something isn't right occurs when his flashlight catches sight across the road of a row of rattling, jiggling mailboxes moving back and forth like they were in an earthquake. Suddenly, his flashlight, radio and other electrical lights shut off. From above, his truck is bathed in blinding, powerful rays of luminescent light.

An array of colorful lights overwhelms his sight, and a deep-toned, thunderous, musical vibration envelopes his truck. There is an apparent loss of all gravitational force - the railroad crossing signal rocks back and forth, the electrical system indicators in the cab dashboard go haywire and smoke, and debris flies randomly around the interior of the cab. And then, just as suddenly as it began, the vibrations and rockings of the visitation cease, and the lights blink out. After all the commotion, the stillness is deafening - a lone dog barks off in the distance.

Roy trembles, leans forward, and peers upwards through his windshield, glancing at a gigantic, slow-moving, flying object in the night sky. For an instant, a narrow beam of intense light shines down on a stop light further down the road. He nearly suffers a heart attack when his flashlight suddenly turns back on. His truck's engine, radio, and electrical system instruments all begin functioning again. He tunes in to a flood of reports about fantastic sightings and other UFO encounters:

  • My God, it's as big as a house.
  • Shaped like a barn.
  • This is absolutely crazy.

Trembling, but interested in pursuing the unidentified phenomenon ("Just off the Telemark Expressway and east toward Harper Valley"), Roy takes off in pursuit without a second thought. The moon's light casts an ominous shadow of the UFO over his infinitesimally-small truck as he drives through the rural countryside. Excited by his experience, but not knowing the meaning of his new-found obsession, he recklessly races through the night east toward Harper Valley on US Route 40.

In another area of the greater Muncie, Indiana landscape, little Barry has wandered away from home and trekked down the center of a remote country road on a hilltop - Crescendo Summit. He comes upon four simple folk in a family - they are peaceful and friendly - inexplicably drawn to watch the skies. The father is whistling in familiar anticipation: "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." The little stranger timidly waves at them. At that moment, Jill scrambles up from the side of the road and spots Barry - but he is in the path of Neary's fast-moving truck speeding around the bend. Jillian dives and tackles her transfixed son to save him from being hit in the truck's path. Roy races to them after braking and fighting his truck for control - he apologizes: "I'm sorry. I didn't even see him. He was just standing right in the middle of the road."

Fifth Close Encounter: Muncie, Indiana

Unshaken by the incident, Barry breaks free from his mother's arms and dashes out into the hill-top road again - while calling out to the sky: "Hello. Come here...Play with me." As they stand there, a squadron of three rumbling, high-speed, multi-colored vehicles - each with a different configuration of lights - come over the horizon and fly low over the road - the objects gracefully pass over them in a smooth, sweeping motion and vanish around the bend. A smaller, glowing red spot of light, akin to Tinker Bell, trails the other flying objects. Jillian, Roy, and the boy witness three of the alien spacecraft, apparently controlled by intelligent beings. Barry yells after them: "Ice cream!" The old man of the family reverentially opines:

They can fly rings around the moon, but we're years ahead of them on the highway.

The undulating wailing of police car sirens are heard in the distance - Jillian moves off the road just in time - three police cars scream around the bend in pursuit of the colorful objects. Neary is astounded by the evening's events: "This is nuts!" Unconsciously, Roy decides to follow the caravan of police cars in his truck, heading for the OHIO STATE LINE toll booth. The UFO's fly through the toll booth, setting off alarms, closely followed by the police cars and Roy's truck.

The patrol car driver in the lead car is mesmerized by the high-speed caravan of UFO's and their flying lights: "Jesus...Look at that! Look at those suckers. They're glued to the road!" At a hair-pin turn, the objects shoot up and over the guardrail and sail off into the heavens. The first pursuit car follows the objects and goes airborne for a few moments before crashing below. The other vehicles screech to a halt at the guard rail on the cliffside. The fantastic lights in the sky fuse to become one while they recede, and then at a tremendous velocity, they split into three points of light before climbing and disappearing into the cloud cover. The clouds are illuminated by bursts of light from within just before the electrical lights of the city are restored across the horizon.

Returning home at four in the morning, Roy is ecstatic and wakens his sleepy wife, unable to calm down: "Honey, Ronnie. Wake up. You're not gonna believe what I saw!...I never would have believed it. There was this, uh, in the cab, there was was a red whoosh." Sleepily, she tells him that he has been instructed to call the power department immediately: "I think you'd better call them." He is so excited that he cannot find words to explain his experience to her: "You know, those pictures in the National Geographic about the Aurora Borealis. This was better than that." He insistently begs her to get up: "Ronnie, I need you to see something with me. It's really important." He also awakens the kids: "Silvia, come on. We're going on a little adventure. Toby! Brad! Come on. Get up. Up!...It's better than Goofy Golf!"

As he bundles everyone into his truck, Ronnie notices that the left side of Roy's face is sunburned and beet red: "Roy, you're sunburned! Look at you!" At the spot on the road on Crescendo Summit where he saw the three indescribable objects, Roy tries to describe what he witnessed:

Ronnie: Roy, what did it look like?
Roy: It was like an ice cream cone.
Ronnie: What flavor?
Roy: Orange. It was orange - and it wasn't like an ice cream cone. It was, it was more like a shell. You know, it was like this.
Ronnie: Like a taco? Was it like one of those Sara Lee, um, moon-shaped cookies? Those crescent cookies? (trying to be supportive) Don't you think I'm taking this really well? I remember when we used to come to places like this just to look at each other...and snuggle.

After many smaller kisses, Ronnie gets Roy's mind off the skies for a few moments, and they snuggle together. But his life-transforming experience is foremost on his mind.

Sixth Close Encounter: Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Native Mongolians with rifles slung over their shoulders, while leading camels through the desert, witness three white vehicles, marked UN and flying blue UN flags, as they zoom over a sand dune in the Gobi Desert. The vehicles are pursued by two military helicopters, as they are directed toward an amazing sight - a stranded freighter named COTOPAXI lying in the deep sand, completely intact but empty. Everyone is baffled and wonderstruck. One of the researchers, David Laughlin from the opening sequence, exclaims and asks: "I don't believe it...Why is it here?"

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