Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)


Introduction

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a 1977 American science fiction film written and directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, and François Truffaut.

It tells the story of Roy Neary, an everyday blue-collar worker in Indiana, whose life changes after an encounter with an unidentified flying object (UFO).

Outline

In Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, French scientist Claude Lacombe, and his American interpreter David Laughlin, along with other government scientific researchers, have discovered Flight 19, a squadron of World War II airplanes that disappeared more than 30 years earlier in the Bermuda Triangle. The planes are all intact and operational, but there is no sign of the pilots. An old man who was there last night claimed that “the sun came out at night, and sang to him”. Meanwhile, at an air traffic control centre in Indianapolis, controllers listen as two commercial airline flights are nearly hit by an unidentified flying object (UFO). In Muncie, Indiana, 3-year-old Barry Guiler is awakened in the night when his toys turn on all by themselves. Fascinated, he gets out of his bed and goes downstairs, and discovers someone or something (off-screen) in the kitchen. Playfully, he runs away from the house, forcing his mother, Jillian, to chase after him.

Investigating one out of a series of sudden and large-scale power outages across Indiana that same night, electrical maintenance worker Roy Neary experiences a close encounter with a UFO when it hovers over his truck, affecting all of the truck’s electrical systems and lightly burning the side of his face with a bright light. Chasing after it, he almost hits Barry and Jillian, and they encounter smaller UFOs hovering low to the ground as they fly down the road, as if they were cars. Neary follows police cars that are pursuing them, but the objects fly off into the night sky. Roy subsequently becomes greatly fascinated by UFOs, much to the dismay of his wife, Ronnie. He also becomes inexplicably, yet increasingly obsessed with making models of a mountain-like shape. Jillian also becomes obsessed with sketching a unique-looking mountain.

Lacombe, Laughlin, and various United Nations experts continue investigating increasing UFO activity and strange, related occurrences across the globe, such as finding the SS Cotopaxi – a ship that also disappeared in the Triangle 50 years earlier – inexplicably in the Gobi Desert. Witnesses in Dharamshala, India report the UFOs emit a particular sequence of five musical tones: D’, E’, C’, C, G. Scientists broadcast the sequence to outer space and receive, in response, a seemingly meaningless string of six numbers repeated over and over (as short radio pulse sets). Using his background in cartography, Laughlin recognises the numbers to be a set of geographical coordinates that are pointing to Devils Tower, Wyoming. Lacombe and the US military converge on Wyoming and Devil’s Tower. The Army evacuates the entire area around Devils Tower by planting false reports in the media that a train wreck has spilled a toxic nerve gas, all the while preparing a secret landing zone for the UFOs and their occupants.

Meanwhile, Jillian is terrorised in her home by a UFO which descends from clouds it appears to take with it, and causes appliances in her house to activate (including a telephone it has ring starting to play the five musical tones when Jillian answers, faster and faster until the scene ends) as unseen beings try entering the house in every possible way, initially stopped by Jillian, until Barry, who joyfully seems to want to help the beings do it, is abducted by them. Shortly after, Roy’s increasingly erratic behaviour causes Ronnie to leave him, taking their three children with her. When a despairing Roy inadvertently sees a television news programme about the train wreck near Devils Tower, he recognises that the butte is what the mountain in his models is. Jillian also sees the same broadcast, and she and Roy, as well as others with similar visions and experiences, travel to the site in spite of the warnings about nerve gas.

While most of the civilians who are drawn to the site are apprehended by the Army, Roy and Jillian persist and make it to the Army’s secret landing zone just as dozens of UFOs appear in the night sky. Scientific specialists at the site begin to try to communicate with the UFOs by the use of light and sound from a large electrical billboard that is being controlled by a synthesizer. After the UFOs leave, an enormous mothership lands at the site, also using light and sound to teach the specialists the aliens’ basic tonal vocabulary. It then releases the missing pilots from Flight 19, as well as the missing sailors from the Cotopaxi and many other long-missing people, all from different past eras and all of whom have not aged since their abductions. Barry is also returned and reunited with a relieved Jillian.

As the aliens finally emerge from the mothership, the government officials, convinced by Lacombe, decide to include Roy in a group of people whom had they selected as potential travellers to join the mothership, and hastily prepare him. The aliens select Roy to join them on their travels, and after Roy enters the mothership, one of the aliens pauses for a few moments with the humans. Lacombe uses Kodály (Curwen) hand signs that correspond to the aliens’ five-note tonal phrase, to which the alien replies with the same gestures, smiles, and then returns to the ship which ascends into space.

Cast

  • Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary:
    • An electrical lineman in Indiana who encounters and forms an obsession with unidentified flying objects.
    • Steve McQueen was Spielberg’s first choice.
    • Although McQueen was impressed with the script, he felt he was not right for the role as he was unable to cry on cue.
    • Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Gene Hackman turned down the part as well.
    • Jack Nicholson turned it down because of scheduling conflicts.
    • Spielberg explained when filming Jaws, “Dreyfuss talked me into casting him. He listened to about 155 days’ worth of Close Encounters. He even contributed ideas.”
    • Dreyfuss reflected, “I launched myself into a campaign to get the part. I would walk by Steve’s office and say stuff like ‘Al Pacino has no sense of humour’ or ‘Jack Nicholson is too crazy’. I eventually convinced him to cast me.”
  • François Truffaut as Claude Lacombe:
    • A French government scientist in charge of UFO-related activities in the US.
    • The UFO expert Jacques Vallée served as the real-life model for Lacombe.
    • Gérard Depardieu, Philippe Noiret, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Lino Ventura were considered for the role.
    • Internationally renowned as a film director, this was Truffaut’s only acting role in a film he did not direct as well as his only role in an English language film.
    • During filming, Truffaut used his free time to write the script for The Man Who Loved Women.
    • He also worked on a novel titled The Actor, a project he abandoned.
  • Teri Garr as Ronnie Neary, Roy’s wife.
    • Amy Irving also auditioned for the role.
  • Melinda Dillon as Jillian Guiler.
    • Teri Garr wanted to portray Jillian, but was cast as Ronnie. Hal Ashby, who worked with Dillon on Bound for Glory (1976), suggested her for the part to Spielberg. Dillon was cast three days before filming began.
  • Bob Balaban as David Laughlin, Lacombe’s assistant and English-French interpreter.
  • J. Patrick McNamara as Project Leader.
  • Warren Kemmerling as Major “Wild Bill” Walsh.
  • Roberts Blossom as Farmer.
  • Philip Dodds as Jean Claude.
  • Cary Guffey as Barry Guiler, Jillian’s son.
    • Spielberg conducted a series of method acting techniques to help Guffey, who was cast when he was just three years old.
  • Lance Henriksen as Robert.
  • Merrill Connally as Team Leader.
  • George DiCenzo as Major Benchley.
  • Gene Dynarski as Ike.
  • Josef Sommer as Larry Butler.
  • Carl Weathers, of Star Wars fame, as Military Police.

Trivia

  • Close Encounters was a long-cherished project for Spielberg.
    • In late 1973, he developed a deal with Columbia Pictures for a science fiction film.
    • Though Spielberg received sole credit for the script, he was assisted by Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson, all of whom contributed to the screenplay in varying degrees.
    • The title is derived from Ufologist J. Allen Hynek’s classification of close encounters with aliens, in which the third kind denotes human observations of aliens or “animate beings”.
  • Douglas Trumbull served as the visual effects supervisor, while Carlo Rambaldi designed the aliens.
  • Made on a production budget of $19.4 million, Close Encounters was released in a limited number of cities on 16 November 1977 and 23 November 1977 before expanding into wide release the following month.
  • It was a critical and financial success, eventually grossing over $300 million worldwide.
  • The film received numerous awards and nominations at the 50th Academy Awards, 32nd British Academy Film Awards, the 35th Golden Globe Awards and the 5th Saturn Awards, and has been widely acclaimed by the American Film Institute.
  • In December 2007, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
  • A Special Edition of the film, featuring both shortened and newly added scenes, was released theatrically in 1980.
    • Spielberg agreed to do the special edition to add more scenes that they were unable to include in the original release, with the studio demanding a controversial scene depicting the interior of the alien mothership.
    • Spielberg’s dissatisfaction with the altered ending scene led to a third version of the film, referred to as the Director’s Cut, that was issued on VHS and LaserDisc in 1998 (and later DVD and Blu-ray).
    • The director’s cut is the longest version of the film, combining Spielberg’s favourite elements from both previous editions but removing the scenes inside the alien mothership.
    • The film was later remastered in 4K and re-released in theatres on 01 September 2017 for its 40th anniversary.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Steven Spielberg.
  • Producer(s): Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips.
  • Writer(s): Steven Spielberg.
  • Music: John Williams.
  • Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmund.
  • Editor(s): Michael Kahn.
  • Production: EMI Films.
  • Distributor(s): Columbia Pictures.
  • Release Date: 16 November 1977.
  • Running Time: 135 minutes (theatical version), 132 minutes (special edition), and 137 minutes (director’s cut).
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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