Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" Review

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

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Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 137 minutes
Release Date: November 16, 1977
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Adventure/Drama/Sci-Fi
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr

There was once a time when a major motion picture could break accepted rules of blockbuster pacing and plot arcs and still get made. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is one of the very finest examples of the films from that era, and it manages to leave viewers with a powerful sense of wonder and humility before the larger universe that humans at that time were only beginning to enter.

All over the world, quite ordinary people are having visions. A strange compulsion seems to strike from nowhere, and the victims feel themselves driven to seek out something they don't understand. In due course, a small group of them comes to realize that they've been chosen as the representatives of the human race by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization and are invited to a little get-together.

At the time "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was made, Richard Dreyfuss was a superstar. Nearly everything he was in turned to gold, sometimes even movies that were made on a shoestring budget, such as "Jaws." Putting him in a smash blockbuster with a large budget and irresistible special effects was a clever decision, one that was well rewarded by the moviegoing public. The film's second-billed actor, François Truffaut, was a tremendous film fan from an early age, even deserting the French army in the early 1950s to take up a career as a film critic and director. Interestingly, he seems to have left off playing roles in front of the camera shortly after "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," opting instead to write and direct his own projects. Though he died in 1984, his scripts were still being produced as late as 1995. Teri Garr was one of the fixtures of American entertainment for a full twenty years, usually playing the put-upon wife of an eccentric. Considering the plot of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," she seemed an ideal choice for the role of Ronnie Neary.

In Steven Spielberg, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was blessed with a talented director who was only just entering his prime. Spielberg had been one of the pioneers of the New Cinema movement that began around 1967 with the release of "Bonnie and Clyde." These films charted a new way forward for Hollywood, having been conceived and executed by a generation of filmmakers-Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, among others-who came of age in a world full of movies and got into the industry primarily to follow their passion for it. Their films tended to be more artistic and personal than what had come before, and their films usually took bigger risks in terms of formula and setup. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was a piece with that tradition. Historically, aliens in movies had come to Earth mainly as conquerors or occasionally as thinly veiled religious allegories. The aliens in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" are just that-aliens, without any hostile, or even necessarily comprehensible, agenda. It was a risky maneuver in the tradition of a risky school of film, and it definitely paid off.

One of the hallmarks of New Cinema was always the attempt at creating stunning visuals. It was in this era that Industrial Light and Magic began as a project for LucasFilm, and visual effects went from corny to mind-blowing. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was a visual tour de force. In an age when including a spaceship in a film meant either a hubcap on a fishing line or awkward photographic cutouts, this film spends the last twenty minutes of its run time laying on an absolutely overpowering display of light and form. The slow descent of the alien mother ship alone was enough to stun the audience into total immersion. The sound, the lighting, and all the other effects came together in this film to completely smother any remaining unsuspended audience disbelief.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was part of an exciting school of film, and one that hasn't been seen in Hollywood for some time. It was an intensely moving story about politics and the human condition set against the backdrop of a much wider universe than movies-even science-fiction movies-generally contemplate. There seems to be a genuine humility before the power and wisdom of the aliens in the film as well as before the wonder of the human race at the threshold of what promised to be a new era.

Rating: 4 out of 5