Steven Spielberg’s second career-defining megahit in a row, following 1975’s Jaws, is in some ways an even more extraordinary demonstration of his gifts than its predecessor, because for much of the film Spielberg has to create excitement around unseen phenomena. Utilizing an arsenal of camera tricks, sophisticated special effects, and pure storytelling wizardry, Spielberg manufactures a vivid sensation that something unprecedented is unfolding, which generates relentless tension as viewers wait for the payoff. And then, in the jaw-dropping finale, he unleashes an onslaught of visual spectacle so overpowering that it justifies all the intense foreshadowing. One of the few films for which Spielberg received sole screenwriting credit, Close Encounters grew out of the director’s fascination with the idea of extraterrestrial life, and more specifically the idea of what might happen upon first contact between humankind and beings from another world.
Although this subject had already been explored in countless films and TV shows, Spielberg approached the concept with such reverence that Close Encounters remains the definitive movie of its type, even though it’s really just a feature-length prelude to an unknown adventure that happens after the closing credits. Abetted by a masterful production team, Spielberg shapes the story (to which writers including Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Paul Schrader made significant but uncredited contributions) to include meticulous detail extrapolated from reports of real-life UFO sightings, as well as a plausible illustration of how the world’s military and scientific communities might react in the event of “close encounter,” to say nothing of imaginative depictions of how aircraft flown by outer-space visitors might manifest.
Tying the film together is the character of Roy Neary (Schrader’s invention, according to some reports), an everyman who becomes obsessed with finding the truth after his pickup truck has an astonishing run-in with an alien craft. Richard Dreyfuss plays Neary to wrenching effect, depicting how the character’s quest for facts is a desperate need to prove he hasn’t gone insane—and a search for personal identity greater than that of an anonymous working stiff. Melinda Dillon and Teri Garr, as the two women in his life, provide earnest counterpoint and sharp comic relief, respectively, while Bob Balaban and iconic French filmmaker Francois Truffaut stand out among the scientific types who cross Neary’s path. Close Encounters includes some of the most exciting scenes Spielberg ever filmed, like Dillon and Dreyfuss busting through a military barrier to reach the natural wonder of Devils Tower in Wyoming, and it also features some of the funniest, like Dreyfuss’ experiments with a mound of mashed potatoes. So while Close Encounters is not for every taste (some fret the ending doesn’t go far enough, others complain it goes way too far), it’s a remarkable experience for those who, like Neary, want to believe.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: OUTTA SIGHT