Close Encounters of the Third Kind

views updated May 17 2018


USA, 1977

Director: Steven Spielberg

Production: Steven Spielberg Film Productions for Columbia Pictures; Metrocolor, 70mm, Dolby; running time: 134 minutes. Released 9 November 1977; re-released 1980 with additional footage under the title Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Special Edition. Filmed in the United States and foreign locations; cost: about $19 million.

Producers: Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; screenplay: Steven Spielberg; photography: Vilmos Zsigmond, and Douglas Trumball, William A. Fraker, Douglas Slocombe, John Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs, Richard Yuricich, Dave Stewart, Robert Hall, Don Jarel, and Dennis Muren; editor: Michael Kahn; sound: Buzz Knudson, Don MacDougall, Robert Glass, Gene Cantamessa, and Steve Katz; sound editor: Frank Warner; production designer: Joe Alves; art director: Dan Lomino; music: John Williams; special effects: Douglas Trumball; costume designer: Jim Linn; consultant: Dr. J. Allen Hynek; stunt coordinater: Buddy Joe Hooker; "Extraterrestrials" realized by: Carlo Rambaldi.

Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary); Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler); François Truffaut (Claude Lacombe); Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler); Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary); Bob Balaban (David Laughlin).

Awards: Oscar for Cinematography (Zsigmond), 1977; Special Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to Frank Warner for Sound Effects Editing, 1977.



Spielberg, Steven, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, London and New York, 1977.


McConnell, Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images from Film Literature, New York, 1979.

Monaco, James, American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies, Oxford, 1979.

Pye, Michael, and Lynda Myles, The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood, London, 1979.

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McAllister, Marica, Steven Spielberg, Vero Beach, 1989.

Taylor, Philip M., Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies & Their Meaning, New York, 1994.

Balaban, Bob, Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary, New York, 1997.

Hovanec, Erin M., Learning About Creativity from the Life of Steven Spielberg, New York, 1999.


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Kauffmann, Stanley, in New Republic (New York), 10 December 1977.

Fairchild, B. H., "An Event Sociologique: Close Encounters," in Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), no. 4, 1978.

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Lehman, Ernest, "Close Encounters of a Quibbling Kind," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1978.

Gerrold, David, "Close Encounters and Star Wars," in Science Fantasy Film Classics, Spring 1978.

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Stewart, G., "Close Encounters of the 4th Kind," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1978.

Seymour, F., and R. Entman, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Close Encounters of the Third Reich," in Jump Cut (Chicago), August 1978.

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Carlo, S., "Montare, smontare, ircollare," in Filmcritica (Rome), April 1979.

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Gordon, A., "Close Encounters: The Gospel According to Steven Spielberg," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 3, 1980.

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Torry, R., "Politics and Parousia in Close Encounters of the Third Kind," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 3, 1991.

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Engel, Charlene, "Language and the Music of the Spheres: Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind," in Literature/ Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 24, no. 4, October 1996.

* * *

Following the financial success of Jaws, director Steven Spielberg was able to obtain funding for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a large personal project about the UFO experience. Spielberg had explored this topic in a 2-hour 8mm film he had made as a youth, called Firelight. Close Encounters tells the story of Roy Neary, a middle-class American who becomes alienated from his family and his suburban lifestyle when he sees actual flying saucers, apparently controlled by intelligent beings from outer space. The aliens have implanted a mysterious vision in Neary's mind, the meaning of which puzzles and frustrates him. Accompanied by Jillian Guiler, a woman whose son has been kidnapped by the aliens, Neary pursues his vision to Devil's Tower, an incredible mountain formation in Wyoming. There, they witness the first physical contact between a team of UFO investigators, led by a French scientist, Claude Lacombe, and the alien visitors. With a dazzling display of special effects, the film presents a host of small space-ships led by a gigantic mother ship. According to Spielberg, the inspiration for the mother ship's design was an oil refinery in India and the city lights of the San Fernando Valley in California. At the end of the film, Jillian is reunited with her son and Neary attains his dream by flying away with the mother ship.

The "Special Edition" of the film added scenes of Neary inside the mother ship, but cut the sequence where Neary throws dirt into his family's home in order to re-create his vision of Devil's Tower. Both versions of the film were combined in a special presentation for network television.

Critical reaction to the film was largely favorable, although there were some strong complaints about gaps in the narrative. Critics especially noted the religious overtones in the film.

But Close Encounters is more than just a quasi-religious celebration of childlike innocence—it is also a celebration of communication, expressed in the film through the interplay of light and music. The film opens with a splash of light and music and closes with an intensified version of these images and sounds, as the aliens and their human counterparts use flashing lights and a specific combination of musical tones to communicate with one another. Reportedly, the composer, John Williams, actually started work for the film two years before it was finalized, and in many instances he wrote his music first while Spielberg constructed the scenes to it later.

Close Encounters combines light and music to show how communication can transcend the boundaries between the known and the unknown, the human and the alien, the real and the imagined. As Frank McConnell suggests in his Storytelling and Mythmaking, the film "is not so much about aliens as about our imagination of aliens, or, rather, about the myths of film culture itself and their power to energize and ennoble our lives beyond the point of irony and dissatisfaction."

—Tom Snyder

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

views updated May 17 2018

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

With its elaborate, unprecedented use of special effects and novel portrayal of extraterrestrials, Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened to popular acclaim in November 1977, eventually earning $240 million in worldwide release and significantly contributing to director Steven Spielberg's status as the most commercially profitable filmmaker in the new Hollywood. Close Encounters depicts an escalation in the number of UFO sightings worldwide and climaxes in the first "diplomatic" contact between mankind and extraterrestrials at a remote military/scientific base in the Wyoming wilderness. In stark contrast to numerous earlier cinematic portrayals of alien visitors as hostile fiends intent on world domination, Spielberg's utopian film presented the extraterrestrials as childishly mischievous but benign: wondrous new friends from the stars. Spielberg would return to some of Close Encounters's themes again in 1982's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, another worldwide blockbuster and for a time the most lucrative motion picture ever.

Two parallel stories are developed in Close Encounters. The first focuses on a scientific team, led by a Frenchman named Lacombe (famous French film director Francois Truffaut), that tracks global UFO activity. The second centers around a midwestern everyman named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who is destined to be humanity's emissary to the stars. The film opens in the windswept Mexican desert, where the airplanes (minus their pilots) of a long-lost military training flight have mysteriously appeared. Lacombe's team discovers that the antique airplanes are in perfect working order. Meanwhile, the skies over the American Midwest are abuzz with strange objects and lights. A power company lineman, Neary sees a group of UFOs flying down lonely back roads near Muncie, Indiana, and becomes obsessed with encountering the aliens again. Unhappy with the demands of adult married life, Neary shares his obsession with a local woman named Jillian (Melinda Dillon), who is in search of her young son, Barry, following his abduction by a UFO.

As the international scientific team moves closer to setting up a secret landing site at the base of Devil's Tower in Wyoming to beckon the visitors, Neary becomes more fixated on a mental image—that of an oddly shaped mountain—implanted in his head during his UFO encounter. Eventually, his tortured attempts to re-create the image in reality lead him to build a mountain of mud and garbage in his living room and thus drive his family away for good. When he sees Devil's Tower on television during coverage of a supposed nerve-gas spill in the area (actually a hoax concocted by the military to give the UFO team the required secrecy for first contact), Neary finally knows where he has to go and takes Jillian with him. After a hazardous cross-country trek, Neary and Jillian reach the secret landing site and witness mankind's first attempts to communicate with the swarms of beautifully illuminated extraterrestrial craft through a five-note musical tone keyed to a light board. A gigantic mothership—a literal city of light in the night sky—arrives to release numerous abductees, including Jillian's son. Different types of aliens also disembark and mingle with the delighted scientists. Meanwhile, Neary, with Lacombe's blessing, suits up for a long journey aboard the mothership. As soon as the ecstatic Neary and his alien escort disappear inside it, the mothership soars majestically back into the night.

The film originated in Spielberg's memories of his formative years in Arizona, where as a teenager he had made an 8mm sound film on the subject of UFOs entitled Firelight. Throughout the beginning of his career as a professional filmmaker, Spielberg intended to remake his amateur film and call it Watch the Skies. During production of Jaws (1975), Spielberg often entertained his crew with tales about UFOs and his plans to make a film about them; with the critical and financial success of Jaws, Spielberg had the clout to do so. He and other writers, including Paul Schrader, worked on various screenplay drafts, although it was Spielberg who received sole credit. He also re-titled the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind —a puzzling title to all except UFO buffs, who would recognize the phrase as UFO expert and Northwestern University professor Dr. J. Allen Hynek's terminology for physical contact with extraterrestrials.

Columbia Studios agreed to finance the project at an initial cost of $16 million. Pre-production scouting settled on the Devil's Tower location as a suitably mysterious backdrop for the film's climax. The film quickly went over budget, finally costing approximately $20 million because of a host of factors, including the logistical demands of location shooting in Wyoming and India (for a brief sequence involving thousands of extras pointing to the sky); the lengthy climactic scene, which required an enormous and problem-plagued set in a hangar in Alabama; and the special effects, supervised by Douglas Trumbull, which involved months of planning and consumed millions of extra dollars. Spielberg's fanatic attention to detail and demands for secrecy on the set added to the studio headaches and delayed the film's release date. Producer Julia Phillips did not approve of some key figures associated with the production, including Truffaut, and was eventually fired by the studio head, David Begelman. Columbia itself was suffering from major financial problems and scandals, and a negative early review of the film did nothing to improve frazzled nerves in the production offices. However, once the film opened, the reviews were much more positive, and the film began to make enough money to be considered another huge success for Spielberg.

There are several different versions of the film in existence. A few years after its initial run, Spielberg returned to the film, re-titling it Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition. At a cost of $2 million and a seven-week shoot, he filmed new scenes, the most notable of which is a rather disappointing look inside the mothership, and removed some of the lengthy middle portion of the film detailing Neary's breakdown. He also added a brief rendition of "When You Wish upon a Star" to the musical score accompanying the mothership's ascent to the heavens. The new version, actually a few minutes shorter than the original, was released in 1980. A later television version combined elements of both films. The special edition was the version most widely available on videostore shelves until a 1998 video release, subtitled The Collector's Edition, a re-edited mix of the original version plus five short sequences from the 1980 special edition.

—Philip L. Simpson

Further Reading:

Balaban, Bob. Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. New York, Paradise Press, 1978.

Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg. New York, Citadel Press, 1995.

Mott, Donald R., and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. Steven Spielberg. Boston, Twayne, 1986.

Perry, George. Steven Spielberg Close Up: The Making of His Movies. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1998.

Taylor, Philip M. Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies, and Their Meaning. New York, Continuum, 1992.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

views updated May 23 2018

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Title of a 1977 movie about UFOs or flying saucers, produced by Columbia Pictures and directed by Steven Spielberg. The filma story about a group of people mysteriously drawn to a site in the Western United States where government personnel hoped to communicate with a extraterrestrial craft expected to landwas fiction but drew heavily upon UFO re-search and theory. Astronomer and ufologist J. Allen Hynek served as technical consultant on the film and made a brief cameo appearance. Several of the movie's subplots were based on firsthand accounts of claimed sightings of UFOs.

The title derives from a grading of types of UFO sighting reports developed by Hynek; the first kind denotes sightings without contact, the second kind involves UFO reports that include some accompanying physical evidence, and the third kind designates claimed contacts with extraterrestrial entities.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is particularly notable for its special effects, the creation of Douglas Trumbull, who also created the noteworthy special effects in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Clark, Jerome. UFOs in the 1980s: The UFO Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Detroit: Apogee Books, 1990.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

views updated Jun 11 2018

Close Encounters of the Third Kind ★★★★ 1977 (PG)

MiddleAmerican strangers become involved in the attempts of benevolent aliens to contact earthlings. Despite the sometimes mundane nature of the characters, this Spielberg epic is a stirring achievement. Studded with classic sequences; the ending is an exhilarating experience of special effects and peaceonearth feelings. Dreyfuss and Dillon excel as friends who are at once bewildered and obsessed by the alien presence, and French filmmaker Truffaut is also strong as the stern, ultimately kind scientist. 152m/C VHS, DVD, Bluray Disc . Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, J. Patrick McNamara; D: Steven Spielberg; W: Steven Spielberg; C: Vilmos Zsigmond; M: John Williams. Oscars '77: Cinematog., Sound FX Editing; AFI '98: Top 100, Natl. Film Reg. '07.