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Close Encounters of the Third Kind Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008

ImageWhen “Jaws” became an enormous hit, surprising everyone (including director Steven Spielberg), it was widely assumed that Universal, the distributor, would hand the young director the keys to the kingdom, backing anything he wanted to make. But they didn’t. Spielberg instead made his next film for Columbia Pictures—and it, too, was a smash hit. (Universal wised up: Spielberg returned for “E.T.”)

Spielberg made this giant production under a cloud of nearly-complete secrecy (a few scripts leaked out), shooting it way off in Alabama, India and Wyoming. The title, too, was mysterious: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” What the hell did THAT mean? Gradually, though, people learned the movie was about U.F.O.s, and that the title was a term invented by U.F.O. expert J. Allan Hynek (who has a cameo in the movie).

Initially a debunker of the flying-sacuers-are-from-space faddish belief, he eventually became convinced that there was something probably unearthly behind some of the sightings. A Close Encounter of the First Kind was the simple sighting of a U.F.O. (unidentified flying object). A Close Encounter of the Second Kind was finding physical evidence—fragments, marks, burns—left by a U.F.O. And a Close Encounter of the Third Kind was contact with the occupants of a U.F.O. From childhood, Spielberg had been a devout believer that UFOs really did come from outer space, though, as he admits in the interesting interview included in the extras here, he is no longer convinced of that. He was determined to create a realistic movie about what he thought was really going on—so determined he refused to call the film “science fiction,” but instead “science speculation” (which, of course, IS science fiction). His burning desire to show the wonders he was sure were waiting for mankind infuses the entire film; it’s weak in some regards (it doesn’t really have a story), even a little silly at time (Einstein was NOT “probably one of them”), but Spielberg’s seemingly innate mastery of all directorial functions makes the film still a stunner, great fun to watch, even if you remain skeptical about all this.

It opens with a bang as a team of UFO investigators, led by Claude Lecombe (Francois Truffaut), investigate a group of airplanes that disappeared in 1948 only to now mysteriously reappear out in the Mexican desert. We also meet Lecombe’s American translator David Laughlin (Bob Balaban), who’s at his side throughout the film.

Elsewhere, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is a Midwestern electric company troubleshooter who has a very busy night when the power goes out over a wide area. As he tries to find his way in the darkness, a UFO passes over his truck; electrified, Roy chases it, joining a group atop a hill. The group includes very young Barry (Cary Guffey) and his frightened mother Gillian (Melinda Dillon), who also saw some UFOs at their nearby farm; Barry is enchanted by them, his mother terrified. Everyone (including the audience) is awestruck when several glowing UFOs jauntily sweep by, disappearing into the night sky.

In India, Lacombe meets a group of people who saw a UFO overhead—one that played music. (In the first scene, an old Mexican happily said the sun had come out in the night, and it sang to him.) Lacombe hears the throng in India singing five notes. Back in the U.S., young Barry picks out the same notes on a toy xylophone.

To his own shock, Roy has been invested with an image of a tower, but he cannot grasp just what it is—he sees it in pillows, mashed potatoes, a pile of mud Barry plays with. As he becomes more and more excited about his encounter with the UFOs, he becomes more and more deranged. When he begins tossing dirt and bushes into his suburban home, his wife (Teri Garr) leaves, taking their children with her.

Gillian keeps drawing pictures of that same unknown tower as Barry plays those five notes. Finally, their house is invaded by –what?—and Barry is taken away in a UFO.

Elsewhere, Lacombe and other UFOologists (one of whom is Lance Henriksen) intercept a message, just numbers, coming from space. It takes cartologist David to realize they’re geographic coordinates—latitude and longitude—that lead them to a particular spot in Wyoming: Devil’s Tower. That is where the UFOs will meet them, so a government conspiracy kicks into gear, faking a disaster in the area of Devil’s Tower.

Roy and Gillian separately see reports of the disaster on TV, and now know where they are being drawn. They both head for Wyoming, meeting again when they get there. The government has set up a huge encampment just behind Devil’s Tower—and the scene is set. (When Gillian and Roy flee confinement, they’re joined by another guy—a surprisingly young Josef Sommer.)

Spielberg fills the movie with details he hopes are convincing, though some are just puzzling, such as the emphasis on music as a form of communication. That’s all well and good, but what are those hand gestures? They assume, with no clear reason, that the aliens will HAVE hands. (As it turns out, they do, but who could have known that?) Some of the details are winning and imaginative—children throughout are very realistically depicted.

Some sequences are frightening because we simply don’t know whether the aliens are friendly or hostile; the invasion of Gillian’s home is especially scary, with smoke, orange light, machines run amok, vents unscrewing themselves, and so forth.

The movie is also very funny from time to time, and we like the characters of Roy and Gillian very much—Dreyfuss is especially winning in this role, and did win the Oscar the same year (for “The Goodbye Girl”). Young Cary Guffey is an endearing charmer, and was handled by Spielberg creatively and with a lot of tenderness—he played friendly tricks on the kid, staying off camera, to get the right expressions of joy, apprehension and wonder.

“Close Encounters” is so full of wonder and delight that it can take a while to realize afterward that there really isn’t any story. A guy is called to Devil’s Tower and meets some aliens, going off with them in their spaceship. That’s not a story—that’s an incident. Also, he’s not too admirable; he’s a married man with three children, but elects to abandon his responsibilities to board a gigantic flying saucer and go away into space, perhaps forever. Even Spielberg, now a father himself, says he wouldn’t tell such a tale nowadays.

You might also wonder about that group of sturdy young people in red jump suits who are prepared for a trip into space. What happens to them? They simply disappear from the narrative. And why do the UFOs come in such a dizzying array of shapes? There are lots of small ones, but we only rarely see anything of them other than colored lights, which sometimes form familiar shapes. The mothership at the end is just as awesome as Spielberg wanted, a combination of his memories of an oil refinery and the San Fernando Valley at night, as seen from Mulholland Drive. It’s a colossal chandelier, and one of the most amazing sights in movie history is it arising from behind Devil’s Tower—but where WAS it? In the ground? If David was with the UFO project in America from the beginning, why is he so surprised that the planes went missing in 1945? Why are the UFOs playing pranks to begin with? Why do they fool around in Gillian’s kitchen, and tamper with Barry’s toys? Why are Egyptian camels seen in the Gobi desert, instead of the two-hump Bactrian camels that really live there? Why is it important that the signals are coming from “well within the plane of the ecliptic”? Why do Gillian’s appliances run wild? Why do the first UFOs at Devil’s Tower form the Big Dipper, a constellation visible only from Earth?

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released this extras-laden two-disc, boxed set of the movie. It also includes a little booklet of scenes from the film, but the booklet is a major disappointment; very short on text, it’s uninformative, just pretty pictures—and we can see all those on the discs.

It’s been issued in both standard definition and this more expensive Blu-ray edition, but you could easily save your money and opt for the standard version. High definition adds a lot to the daytime scenes, as of Neary roaring over the Wyoming plains in his battered station wagon, but it doesn’t really add much to the UFO footage. To begin with, cameras in 1977 didn’t usually provide an especially crisp image; the softness wasn’t a problem then, and it isn’t a problem now—but it does mean that to a degree, there’s not too much point in having the film printed in high definition at all.

The spectacular UFO effects, under the direction of Douglas Trumbull, used models (often mere wire frames) with bright colored lights at key points; they were shot in a fogged area, so the lights have a diffused bloom. This is very attractive, even satisfyingly mysterious, but these images were deliberately not sharp in the first place. The UFOs are among the most wondrous special effects in movie history, but they were never crisp and clear. Even the mothership, with its towers dotted with hundreds of individual “windows,” was shot in the fog-shrouded environment, so details (even the R2D2 seen on a rim of the ship) were indistinct in theaters.

One feature that was inaccessible on my system is the “View from Above.” The intent was that as you were watching one of the three cuts of the film included, symbols would appear to identify a scene cut from later editions, one that’s unique to this cut, and those that are only in the original theatrical version. This didn’t work for me, but fortunately, the set also includes a fold-out chart detailing the cuts and additions.

Spielberg was rushed in initially completing the film, and wasn’t able to film a scene he wanted very much (of the ship found in the desert). In 1980, Columbia was in financial trouble, and wanted to reissue this major hit in a slightly different form; they wanted audiences to see the interior of the mothership when Neary entered. Spielberg didn’t want to shoot the scene, but he bargained with Columbia to allow him to shoot that ship scene, and to remove a few others. He wasn’t happy with the 1980 release, and audiences weren’t jazzed by the ship interior—but the film was a hit all over again nonetheless.

For this DVD release, Spielberg slightly recut the film, returning a few shots removed from the 1980 cut, and deleting the scene of the interior of the ship. All three cuts are here. (Raising an interesting question: if three complete versions of this film can be included on one disc, why don’t studios fill discs more completely in the first place?)

The second disc is rich with extras, including a lengthy interview with Spielberg—unusual for him; he usually dodges personal publicity. He says that even including “Jaws,” to this day, no movie job was ever harder for him than putting together the last 25 minutes of “Close Encounters.” Even with three versions in release, he still regards it as a work in progress—but assures us there won’t be a fourth version.

Among the multitude of extras is a lengthy “Making of CE3K” featurette, which seems to have been filmed over several years. Spielberg is seen on what seems to be the set of “Saving Private Ryan;” others were interviewed more recently, some even longer ago. We learn that among the actors Spielberg approached to play Roy Neary were Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. Other people interviewed include Bob Balaban, Richard Dreyfuss, Douglas Trumbull, Vilmos Zsigmond, Joe Alves, John Williams (whose score for the film is one of his best), editor Michael Kahn, model maker Greg Jein, artist Ralph McQuarrie and effects expert (and multiple Oscar winner) Dennis Muren. An especially welcome sight is Cary Guffey, now a young man, and still as charming as he was as a child. This exceptional featurette was directed by Laurent Bouzerau.

The collection of deleted scenes contains several surprises—originally, we were to have seen Roy Neary at work, interacting with other linemen and workers. This was the closest link between this movie and “It Came from Outer Space.” (Ray Bradbury, who wrote “It Came,” has said that after he saw “Close Encounters,” Spielberg stopped him to ask how he liked “his” movie. Then explained his initial inspiration was that 3D movie from 1953—and there are a few similarities.) There were more government coverup scenes. In one of the other featurettes, there are scenes of small white cubes rushing around the government’s Devil’s Tower setup, an idea that had to be dropped for practicality. The horde of small aliens (played by little girls in costumes) originally was intended to move in high speed, with “human” actors moving especially slowly, so they’d be at normal speed in shots with the aliens. But this interesting idea was dropped, along with scenes of the aliens playing with government equipment.

There are other featurettes featuring storyboard comparisons, storyboard galleries, photos taken around the southwest by location scouts, mothership drawings by Ralph McQuarry, photos of the production teams, marketing campaigns for the original theatrical release and the special edition. It’s great to have all this stuff—but NONE of these brief features includes a “play all” option; you have to watch each of them one at a time, wait through the end credits, and re-access the features individually. This is irritating and was unnecessary.

Even more than “Jaws,” which is quite different dramatically from any other Spielberg movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is the launching pad for one of the most remarkable careers in American movie history. Whether in standard or high definition, this 30th anniversary set of the movie everyone knows as CE3K is a worthy purchase for anyone with a TV set.

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