By Marc S. Sanders

Close Encounter of the First Kind – Sighting of a UFO.

Close Encounter of the Second Kind – Physical Evidence.

Close Encounter of the Third Kind – Contact.

Music is the most universal of all languages.  Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind demonstrates that claim. 

I appreciate how Spielberg’s script, along with his direction, opens the film.  It takes place during a sun swept sandstorm in New Mexico.  At first, hardly anything but sand blowing can be seen, along with the high volume of wind breezing about inconveniently.  You are not even sure what you are looking at.  Then, headlights from a vehicle appear and a group of men assemble.  We come to find the main character of this scene is a French scientist named Lacombe (Francois Truffaut).  He only speaks French and hardly understands any English.  He is in need of an interpreter (Bob Balaban) to translate to American men who are accompanying them.  After we’ve established French and English are in the fold, we then realize that Spanish must enter the conversation amidst the overwhelming winds from the blinding storm.  An occurrence must have happened here recently, because Lacombe and crew interview some of the locals who are trying their best to define what took place the night before.  An elderly man is mysteriously sunburned on only one side of his face.  Thereafter, a grouping of bi-planes last seen flying over the Bermuda Triangle nearly forty years earlier come into focus.  No matter how you learn, communicate or understand, the confusion depicted is a perfect match for each of the men occupying this space.

A parallel story begins after this opening in the state of Indiana.  Sightings by airline pilots, as well as residents, are discovered in the skies above.  Blackouts occur everywhere.  The experiences of two residents, a young boy named Barry, and a utility worker named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), are who Spielberg uses to guide us through these strange episodes of phenomena.  They are being drawn towards a calling or an image and they become entirely focused upon what has happened to them.  Barry’s mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon), while trying to reign her son back home has also been delivered a message from unusual spectacles in the skies. 

Soon after, these people cannot help but focus on a shape that they know they’ve seen before but can not place it.  Roy sculpts the shape in his shaving cream and his mashed potatoes.  He becomes neglectful of his work, his three children and his wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), who refuses to take him seriously.  Barry’s young age allows him to avoid understanding the meaning of any this.  So, when the blinding “lights,” of whatever these entities could be, come towards his home in the middle of the night, he happily welcomes them, and willingly accompanies them back to wherever they came from.

I know this science fiction film is a highly regarded classic.  It’s earned the right to be considered as such, and so many have seen it.  Yet, I also know that I appear vague in my description of the film here.  I choose not to expound on everything going on in Close Encounters…  Steven Spielberg would want it that way, and I hate spoiling any movie.  A movie not seen is new to any of us. 

The residents of Indiana insist to higher governmental and military authorities that they have witnessed unidentified flying objects.  What those UFOs are, or where they came from, or why they visited their home state is unexplainable.  Spielberg intentionally avoids definitively explaining what’s occurred.  After all, if aliens are visiting our planet Earth, then who’s really to say we understand what they want or why they’ve come here?  Like the rest of the countries of the world, it’s fair to say that inhabitants of another planet in our galaxy would likely have their own way of communicating or speaking that’s entirely different from English, or French, or Spanish.

Spielberg goes even further to distance any understanding among ourselves or with these new entities that we are encountering.  A cargo sea vessel appears out of nowhere in the most unlikely place, the Gobi Desert of Mongolia.  Why?  How?  The people of a village within the continent of India are harmonizing a tune over and over again, in unison.  Lacombe along with his interpreter, and their American crew, attempt to decipher why these episodes have occurred as well.  The harmony must mean something.  What’s the message?  The world must learn to communicate with one another if they are to understand why these strange happenings continue.

Once Spielberg introduces the Indian village’s response to their experience, oddly enough Barry becomes obsessed with the tune as well.  Lacombe believes he’s recognized the tune as a means to speak with the visiting entities.  Again though, what is the message within the song?  In addition, Roy and Jillian are beginning to understand their obsession of the shape.  “This means something.  This is important.”  The script for Close Encounters… does not take for granted the repetitive significance of this line.  It is uttered a few times at different moments, by both Roy and Lacombe.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind functions as a riddle, and yet it all makes sense in a breathtaking ending that occupies the last 30-40 minutes of the picture.   I hope there will be readers of this column who have yet to see this film.  It is better to go into it by knowing as little as possible.  Only then can you truly experience the maternal frustration that Jillian has for her young son’s insistence on going towards the lights, or Roy’s obsession with what dwells in his mind following his encounter.  With knowing as little as possible, can you become all the more curious at Lacombe’s pursuit.  When Spielberg gradually pulls the curtain away, it is such a satisfying relief and a feeling of fulfillment to have taken the journey with these characters. 

The construction of Spielberg’s first of many sci-fi films is magnificent.  It performs as if it is operating with real world science and language.  Yet, I have to draw attention to a scene that arrives in the middle of the picture.  Barry’s innocent, but youthful obsession, is tested within the home, beside Jillian’s fear.  Spielberg uses every prop and device available within the set of this scene.  Battery operated toys come alive.  The record player goes off.  The stove turns on. The dishwasher opens and closes. Blinding lights bleed through the curtains, chimney and keyholes.  The echoing sounds become overpowering.  What’s come to the house can’t be explained.  However, one person is thrilled by it while another is terrified.  It is such a well edited scene of terror at the unknown, that for me still remains as one of the most suspenseful moments in film history.  Steven Spielberg is bringing life to a “boogie man.”  When I showed my daughter this picture during a re-release in a Dolby movie theatre, I held her 11-year-old self in my lap concerned she’d become frightened of the scene.  It’s as thrilling as going on an unpredictable roller coaster for the first time.  The scene occurs out of nowhere, with no convenience of foreshadowing.  Once again, as he did with Jaws and somewhat implied with Duel, Steven Spielberg does not show you the terror or the invasive entity.  He allows the viewer’s subconscious to draw its own conclusion.  This is master craftsmanship.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind remains as one of the best science fiction films of all time.  Nearly forty years later, despite its fiction, it still feels like it’s real.  It all feels like it means something.  It still feels like its important. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s