In November 1977, six months after George Lucas gave the world Star Wars, Steven Spielberg complemented that whizz-bang crackerjack science fantasy adventure with a work of pure science fiction that blew audiences away all over again. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind took a very different tack, using predominantly visual storytelling supported by the bare minimum of plot. But the plot is not absent, it is just simple: UFOs appear, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and others become drawn to the Devil’s Tower national monument in Wyoming, and that’s where humans and aliens make contact. Simple as. But don’t think that captures the essence of this film; this is a hypnotic and stunning cinematic experience. Just a note: this review based on original theatrical release, as that is the only one of the three versions I had access to. I look forward to watching the Special Edition and Director’s Cut in future.
The film is about the difficulty of communication, and what better way to illustrate this than in the opening scene in which French, Spanish and English speakers all struggle to get through to each other while yelling in a sandstorm? The film does a great job of showing the press of humanity and the chaos of communication, all beautifully building up to a climax that represents simplicity, intimacy and clarity. Another remarkable thing is that while the film is so cluttered with human noise, the “conspiracy” aspect of the film is never didactic, or the subject of exposition. The audience is never told the meaning of the title, and certain plot points only really start to reveal their scope toward the very end.
It is that very chaos, however, that may put off some, which is understandable. There are reams and reams of words in this script, unruly communication which is deliberately off-putting. There are many, many lines in the film, but nothing in the way of crucial dialogue. This is a true cinematic experience, owing to Speilberg writing the screenplay himself and knowing where the focus should be. The sound is mixed in such a way that a lot of dialogue is difficult to understand or make out, and in this way the theme of the difficulty of communication engages the audience directly. Now let’s talk about subtitles. I personally am a big subtitle fan; I watch almost all my films with subtitles whenever possible. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a very special case. I have never seen a film that so demanded to be watched without subtitles. The sometimes incomprehensible or messy noise of human speech is part of the texture of the film, and subtitles, being a way to artificially understand, only diminish the experience of the film.
The way Spielberg gives us such a great visual experience also applies to the performances, which are made or broken by anything other than dialogue. Richard Dreyfuss gives a great central performance, communicating obsession that doesn’t need declarations or monologues to shine through. François Truffaut gets across so much of a dignified character with an absolute minimum of traditional character development. However, that lack of traditional dialogue tropes means that Teri Garr’s character of Roy Neary’s wife is reduced to a quite undignified roadblock. It’s a thankless role for Garr, so it’s no wonder she wanted the much more proactive role of Jillian Guiler that became Melinda Dillon’s, as there’s so much more there.
The build-up in the film is very deliberate and slow, but to say that the payoff is something special would be to profoundly undersell it. Sometimes a simple conceit hits like a bullseye. Threaded throughout the film are foreshadowings of the shape of the Devil’s Tower mountain, and a five note melody. Obsession/fixation is one of the most cogent things film can portray, and the foreshadowing of the shape of the mountain, and the application of the melody, shares the characters’ preoccupation with the audience. There’s a reason the John Williams-composed five note melody is iconic. For one thing, it contains the “perfect fifth”, also known as the heroic fifth (it’s a tried-and-true musical interval with roots in the way harmonics work). Williams composed the Close Encounters score mere months after Star Wars, both using that fifth; both uses are brilliant, but they have such distinct contexts.
Speaking of contrasts to Star Wars, the mothership arriving sees Lucas’ famous Star Destroyer shot, and raises it a near-religious experience. The Douglas Trumball model work on the aliens’ mothership is breathtaking. A little later, I like to think of the ship opening as the ultimate Spielberg, in that he loves his floodlights (see image below). The entire climax is hypnotically good, creating a sense of wonder and warmth unmatched in cinema. I shouldn’t be here describing it, reducing it to words. It just has to be seen, and felt, to be believed.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterpiece. Many of its elements have saturated pop culture deeply because they are rooted in an indelible fixation. The build-up to a cathartic and life-affirming climax is flawless, punctuated by committed performances and the direction of a genius. Is it irony that Spielberg communicates the theme of the difficulty of communication so well? 10/10.