Dir: Steven Spielberg
GEN: from war to peace: aliens in the last 50 years of cinema
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE3K) is not Steven Spielberg’s most famous alien film - it’s not even his most famous film in this series, but when it was released to the world in 1977 it heralded a new age in cinema and an optimistic look at the universe that was getting bigger by the day.
CE3K is often forgotten within the context of Spielberg’s other works despite being one of his earliest and greatest achievements. In this venture, Spielberg dared suggest that first contact with extraterrestrials might not be as apocalyptic as cinema had stereotyped, an idea he would revisit several times in his career and one we’ll look at again later in this series.
While the story itself is a refreshing change of pace from the death and destruction of contemporary alien films, following electrical lineman Roy Neary after a late-night encounter with a UFO, it was the special effects that won audiences over as the contact sequence that concludes the film took many special effect fundamentals to levels that had not been seen before.
Spielberg picked up famed visual effects artist Doug Trumbull, who had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Silent Running (1971), Carlo Rambaldi, the practical effects artist who would go on to design aliens for two other films in this series, and Vilmos Zsigmond, Academy Award winning cinematographer of Deliverance (1972) who would go on to win another for his work on CE3K. These minds, combined with his own visual effects unit would come to create what is considered to be one of the greatest achievements in cinema today.
Shot on the cinematic holy grail of 70mm to account for quality loss during the extensive special effects insertion, the visual effects budget was $3.3m and mostly spent on the climactic contact sequence. While previous alien films had stereotyped UFOs as metallic simple shaped objects, Ralph McQuarrie designed an elaborate ship that resembled an oil refinery Spielberg had seen, ablaze with every colour imaginable. The aliens and their movement were mostly achieved by using either small children in suits or advanced puppetry, as CGI would not yet convincingly do the job, with Rambaldi receiving an Academy Award nomination for his work.
Richard Dreyfus gives one of his career-best performances as conflicted family man Neary, alongside Francois Truffaut (in his only English-language role), Melinda Dillon and a young Cary Guffey, all excellently directed by Spielberg in his prime. With John Williams’ iconic and profoundly moving score, Close Encounters is an experience for all of the senses, perhaps none more so engaging or memorable than its 5 tone motif, the point of contact between man and alien that was rather unconventionally based on sound.
Close Encounters is a benchmark in science fiction for how it looked, but also for what it said. It evoked the scientifically curious ideas of the time, doing things because we could, much like John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech committing to land on the moon by the end of the decade - “not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. Roy Neary, a husband and father of three abandons his family in the search for truth, a frustrating act of compulsion that even he can’t quite comprehend. An idea that interestingly, Spielberg himself says he would never have written if he had been a father by that point in his life.
The story is eked out very gradually and a bulk of the film is spent in a state of question. Neary is disturbed by his own mysterious obsession with Devil’s Tower, a landmark famous for its association with the film, and sees his family life deteriorate as a result. Yet he proceeds there nonetheless and is vindicated with an alien landing. Staging Close Encounters in Indiana and Wyoming was a massive statement from Spielberg, a mid-West native who wanted to make it much more relatable to the average American.
In the climactic contact scene, it emerges that there is not just one variety of alien onboard the ship but several, as Spielberg was particularly keen to reflect that different races were inherent in nature. The aliens themselves, in landing, return the many people that have been abducted in the decades prior, entirely unharmed and as they were the day they were taken. We find the aliens are as interested in us as we are them. An inquisitiveness that we too exhibit by the act of being there to watch as the ship lands, against all government warning and our natural fear of the unknown.
The peaceful nature of CE3K is not it’s only contrary aspect, the fact that the encounter is hidden away from popular media is almost unthinkable in the current age of information sharing, one of the many ways it reflects a different time where such a thing was actually possible. As well as a different attitude towards science and exploration, when the answer to these celestial questions was considered more important than any monetary or individual cost.
By the end, no secrets are shared between the two peoples. Only a brief moment of understanding and a mutual furthering in the quest for knowledge above all, inquisitiveness over fear, and mankind over man - the bigger picture.
"I just want to know that it's really happening" - Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) to Lacombe (Francois Truffaut)
Featuring series curator, Euan Foley and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt.
Where to watch
The full version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is available online or in stores across the UK.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.