Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

We are not alone.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind made two things clear in American cinema: Science-fiction films were here to stay, and that Steven Spielberg had a future in them. It developed the distinct style of Spielberg’s films, created a public platform to discuss aliens and UFO’s without seeming crazy, and presented a grounded, family friendly sci-fi film much like Star Wars.

First Impressions

The trailer explains the three different kinds of “close encounters” with unidentified flying objects, giving a good idea what this film will be about. It then gives the cv. for the film which includes the director Jaws (Steven Spielberg), the producers of Taxi Driver (Julia & Michael Phillips), the special effects expert from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Douglas Trumbull), and the composer of Star Wars (John Williams). The trailer goes on to show that normal people will meet UFOs, but the question that is unasked: will they be friend or foe? It leaves the audience with the message that “we are not alone.”

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In a Mexican desert, in the present day, French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his interpreter Laughlin (Bob Balaban) find a number of intact and pristine World War II airplanes that mysteriously appeared overnight. Speaking with a local they discover that the planes appeared when “the sun came out” and it sung to him. In Indianapolis, Indiana air traffic controllers are shocked by mysterious readings of an unknown flying object on their boards. When they ask the pilots of two flights if they want to report a UFO, they all quickly say “no.”

In Muncie, Indiana, young Barry Gulick (Cary Guffey) is awakened in the middle of the night when his toys come to life. He follows an unseen entity out of the house, running into the woods, followed by his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon). Elsewhere the Neary family encounters a power outage. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an employee of the Indiana Department of Water and Power, is tasked to help with repairs. While driving around in the blackout his car dies, and is bathed in an intense light causing gravity fluctuations and other strange anomalies with mailboxes and signposts. Suddenly things return to normal, but Roy catches sight of a dark shape moving across the sky. He follows police reports from his radio and ends up with a group of other individuals on a deserted road, including Jillian and Barry, as three UFOs race by followed by police cars.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

When Roy’s truck suddenly dies he experiences a close encounter of the second kind.

In India, Lacombe speaks to a village elder that explains about the close encounter the village had, while the people all vocalize a musical-phrase used by the alien craft. Later Lacombe also finds a tanker ship inexplicably in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Roy becomes increasingly distracted from his wife (Teri Garr) and children, and obsessed with making models of a mountain. “This means something,” he comes telling them. Jillian too, is drawing the same shape over and over. Barry is abducted when aliens re-visit his house one night, but no one believes Jillian, except for Roy, who believes they share something in common.

Lacombe and the other scientists he’s working with receive a message from outer space with coordinates: Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. The military devise stories in order to scare people out of the area. Meanwhile Roy’s compulsions are becoming manic, driving his wife to leave with the kids (never to be seen again). He ends up ripping up plants from his garden and shoveling dirt into his house to build a giant mountain–which he soon connects to the news reports of Devil’s Tower, where a military nerve gas accident has caused a massive evacuation. He travels from Indiana to Wyoming for reasons he cannot understand.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

How else could a ship like this end up in the desert?

Nearing the mountain, Roy encounters numerous military roadblocks and mandatory evacuations. He sees Jillian, who has also become compelled to visit the mountain. They off-road behind the cordons, encountering dead-looking livestock, however Roy believes this all to be a hoax. They are captured by an Army patrol and taken to the base camp where Lacombe interviews Roy. Lacombe believes that the dozen people they’ve caught have no reason to be here other than as an invitation from the aliens. Roy, Jillian and another man escape the base camp making their way onto the mountain. The third man is stopped by a sleeping gas the military is crop-dusting to stop any potential interlopers.

Roy and Jillian make it to the back side of the mountain, dubbed “the Dark Side of the Moon” by the scientists, where they see a well lit “stage” and landing zone setup for a potential visit from extraterrestrials. Using the musical-phrase that Lacombe has continually encountered throughout, the scientists “talk” to three small ships. Thinking they have been successful, the scientists all congratulate themselves when dozens of other ships return, heralding the arrival of a gigantic mothership. It lands and many humans that had been previously abducted exit, including service men from the planes found in the desert.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Roy has a fun and energetic relationship with his kids. Once he starts to experience the alien message, all of that becomes strained.

Barry runs off the ship into Jillian’s arms. The scientists and technicians are all in awe of what is happening. Then a few small aliens exit the ship. The scientists have prepared a contingent of individuals to return with the aliens if presented with the opportunity. Lacombe sees Roy and invites him to join the group. The aliens take Roy and the others on board, before a final lanky, grey alien exits, and uses sign-language to communicate the musical phrase with Lacombe. The ship departs with Barry saying “goodbye,” and the accumulated scientists return to their trailers to pour over the data collected this evening.

They were invited” – Lacombe, as translated by Laughlin

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Some people just want to believe.

History in the Making

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was Steven Spielberg’s third film, after The Sugarland Express and his breakout-blockbuster Jaws. It came at a time that the American consciousness was finding a heightened interest in unidentified flying objects (UFOs). From books about close encounters and aliens visiting Earth–such as the 1968 Chariots of The Gods, to television series that researched mysterious phenomena, like the Leonard Nimoy hosted In Search Of, interest in the possibility of alien life visiting the planet was at its peak. Add onto that the growing distrust of the military and government in a post-Vietnam War/post-Watergate world, plus the emerging uptrend in science-fiction media, and the success of the release of Close Encounters seems like a no-brainer.

Of course aliens visiting Earth has been a popular sci-fi storyline for decades dating back to The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds. But Spielberg produced the story with less flair than previous films, using his standard everyman aspect for looking at the world. These aliens aren’t coming to destroy the cities or steal our women. They are presented as a curious species (just as we are) and wholeheartedly want to communicate with humanity. The wonder and amazement really comes through in the film, partial due to the use of a child actor for parts of the story. Close Encounters (sometimes abbreviated CE3K) wasn’t an epic space adventure like Star Wars, created by Spielberg’s friend George Lucas. It was a personal and intimate film about humanity, and specifically one man, meeting a race of alien beings.

Much of the research for the film was based on documented reports from people that had supposedly witnessed “flying saucers.” The aliens were not monstrous, multi-tentacled aliens. Instead they were short or spindly-legged grey aliens with large eyes, dubbed “greys” by popular culture. The ships followed patterns of lights that people had reported seeing, from cigar shaped, to the more traditional saucer design. Spielberg also popularized the rating scale of close encounters, with the first being a sighting, the second being physical proof (such as Roy’s sunburn), and the third as direct contact.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Young Barry is enthralled by strange lights outside his house.


Taking so many ideas from real-world work with UFOs, Close Encounters almost feels like a documentary in some places rather than a fictional film. It was a truly expensive film for it’s time, running about $8 million more than Star Wars and $11-12 million more than Logan’s Run. But the results all appear to be on screen, creating a wonderfully magic atmosphere. It’s truly the first world spanning sci-fi film, visiting the Mexican desert (shot in California), India, and shooting in at least three states standing in for Indiana and Wyoming. It showed that “big budget” sci-fi films were not a fluke, but something that audiences were truly interested in.

It also defined the look of Spielberg films, both directed and produced, for at least the next decade. His focus on the everyman, rather than larger than life characters have become one of his trademarks. His use of Richard Dreyfuss creates a personal connection with the audience, as a character most people can relate to. He would get even more personal with his next alien film, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which would focus on one particular alien and the boy that discovers him. Because of these two films, friendly alien visitation films came out in greater numbers during the 80s, including Mac and Me, Flight of the Navigator, Explorers, and the Spielberg produced *batteries not included.

The other defining element that Close Encounters brought to the late 70s sci-fi genre is the secondary plot of the government conspiracy to cover up the meeting with the aliens. Stemming from the large number of 1970s conspiracy films, like All The President’s Men, Capricorn One, or Three Days of the Condor, Close Encounters created another entry point for similar alien-conspiracy films to exist. Films that were based on urban legends, or popular folktales of extraterrestrial visitors such as Hangar 18, Endangered Species, or Communion as well as the television series The X-Files. These stories all pre-supposed that something was out there, but the government didn’t want us to know about it.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Jillian and Roy experience feelings ranging from gratitude to incredulity as they witness Devil’s Tower for the first time in real life.

Societal Commentary

The biggest take home message from Close Encounters, besides the awe and wonder exhibited at the appearance of the aliens has to be the message that “we are not alone.” Aliens exist in outer space, and apparently believe that (in 1977) Earth is ready for First Contact. It’s a powerful message that can cause the inhabitants of the planet to react in one of two ways: reverence and curiosity, or fear and anger. The latter is the common state seen in television and movies, where the aliens show up and humanity begins attacking before any attempt at communication is tried. Spielberg tends to fall on the previous notion, but also shows some of the mistrust and fear that can accompany such a discovery.

There’s also a smaller thematic element of obsession, as Roy devolves from a responsible family man to a solo voyager on an alien spacecraft. The film opens with Roy planning entertainment options with his kids to see Pinocchio at the movies later in the week. But after his close encounter, Roy develops a mania of recreating the mountain he saw in his head. He is unaware of the cause, and cannot understand the mental collapse he’s having. But this event drives a wedge between Ronnie and him, causing her to finally leave with the children. Spielberg has stated several times that, looking back, he would have made a different choice for this character now that he has become a parent himself.

The film also speaks to the mindset of conspiracy and mistrust of the government. Why would so many people be saying that they’ve seen UFOs yet the government denies it? Close Encounters works on both sides of the conspiratorial line. It shows the Army and the Government covering up the very real existence of space aliens. In order to do that these organizations lie to the public to produce a fake nerve gas accident. They “kill” livestock in the area (mentioned later as an aerosolized sleeping agent), create fake news reports, and round stragglers in the affected area. Because Roy is able to navigate through this ruse because of the invitation he received from the aliens, it doesn’t feel as unnerving as the mysterious government agencies that try to take away E.T. or the insidious forces at work in The X-Files.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Lacombe, with his translator Laughlin, tries to explain to the Major that these “interlopers” were invited by the aliens.

The Science in The Fiction

Can aliens be out there? This of course is the biggest question that came up in the 70s. Between serious research and commercials for “Dianetics,” the claim that we are not alone was pervasive. From a scientific point of view, it’s completely narrow minded and self-centered to think that humans are the only intelligent species in the universe. While no proof exists (at least that has been made public) there are still people willing to continue looking for signs of intelligent life elsewhere.

But how would they communicate with us? Close Encounters makes a good point that the aliens might use a harmonic theme (aka musical notes) to send a message to humanity. The vibrational frequencies that create music or sound, would be something of a commonality, that is assuming that the lifeforms have evolved to be similar to humans. Lacombe uses hand signals (similar to sign language) from the Kodály method of musical education to represent the musical tones in a physical way. The end of the film demonstrates him using this technique and getting a response back from one of the aliens. This too assumes that the beings evolved in a way where they had similar appendages to us, and could understand what the movements of the human hand represented.

In reality communication may come in some form of mathematical equation or something even more fundamental about reality. We’ve actually sent several communications out into the universe letting intelligent life know we exist. These include the Voyager golden record, the Arecibo message, and various TV and radio transmissions. The golden record, launched in 1977, was one of the first attempts at getting our message to other beings, and is just that–a record. It explains how to play it and has diagrams about the location of our planet, along with sounds and images depicting Earth. This device was the main driving force for the alien encounter in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Another earlier effort was the Arecibo message, which was a binary radio pulse sent from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. It contained a number of pieces of information depicting ways to communicate with us, such as how to count to 10, where we were located, and the device used to transmit the message. The Carl Sagan book (and later movie) “Contact” would use this as the device aliens were contacting humanity about. Hopefully any aliens that find these messages will be like the ones here in Close Encounters and not like the ones in Independence Day or V.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Barry is returned to his mother safely.

The Final Frontier

Looking back at 1977, many people see Lucas’ Star Wars and Spielberg’s Close Encounter of the Third Kind as the beginning of the duo’s dominance in sci-fi. Not only is it so much more than earlier “visitation” films, it’s beautifully shot for a sci-fi film. Vilmos Zsigmond was a Hungarian cinematographer that had previously shot The Long Goodbye and Deliverance, and was the only winner of an Academy Award for the film. Out of the eight nominations Close Encounters received that year, five Oscars in the technical categories went to Star Wars, while Spielberg’s Best Director nomination went to Woody Allen for Annie Hall, and Melinda Dillon lost Best Supporting Actress to Vanessa Redgrave in Julia.

Close Encounters was a huge success at the box office and showed studios that big budget sci-fi films didn’t all need to be space-adventure films. Over the next two years dozens more films would come out that were inspired wholly, or in-part by the success of CE3K and Star Wars. But that wasn’t all. Television was seeing these recent successes and gearing up future seasons to take advantage of the public reaction to sci-fi. By the end of 1977 there were at least seven major sci-fi series on television, including Space: 1999 (which had just finished its run), Logan’s Run (it’s one and only season), The Man From Atlantis, Doctor Who (in its 15th Season), and The Incredible Hulk (which along with the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man series, started Marvel Comics strong entry into TV). The two biggest shows of this time were The Six-Million Dollar Man and its counterpart, The Bionic Woman.  Both would end in the next year, but that’s OK. By 1978 at least five new sci-fi series showed up, and showed no signs of slowing down into the 80s.

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