It’s not often that we associate the blockbuster form with genuine artistic expression. Studio and box office expectations tend to make it more difficult for a filmmaker to express themselves within the form. It seems fitting then that the one filmmaker capable of overcoming this hurdle is the man who created the blockbuster itself. Steven Spielberg’s films have always managed to combine spectacle or rigorous filmmaking with a sense of personal exploration, a staple of his work and what often makes it so extraordinary. After finding his feet and establishing himself as a major director with ‘Jaws’ (1975), he turned his imagination and ambition to an even bigger project, and arguably the first true Spielberg film. Forty years after it was first released in 1977, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ still has the ability to fill you with awe, and in hindsight is the first truly personal film Spielberg ever made.
No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I’m always surprised at how ‘Close Encounters’ is never the film I expect it to be. During the explosion of sci-fi cinema at the height of the Cold War, visitors from outer space came only as a threat, an "other" impossible to understand whose only aim was our destruction. The notable exception is Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951), where a peaceful visitor from outer space offers an ultimatum to turn the tide of our inherent violence. In many ways, it’s the precursor to Spielberg’s film in that it imagines an interaction with the great unknown not built on fear but on mutual understanding - a theme that Spielberg opened up to even greater scope.
The background of ‘Close Encounters’ is a series of strange extraterrestrial sightings and events, investigated by French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his translator/assistant David Laughlin (Bob Balaban). Spielberg has said often though that he never wrote ‘Close Encounters’ as science fiction – he wanted to imagine what would really happen if an everyman or woman came in contact with an alien race, and what effect that would have. The primary narrative of the film focuses on two characters and their families. The first is single mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon), whose young son Barry (Cary Guffey) seems to be attracting the attention of these extraterrestrials. The second is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who becomes obsessed after his own close encounter, much to the disturbance of his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and children. As Roy begins to lose his grip on reality and Jillian finds herself fighting to defend Barry, both families begin to fall apart under the weight of something far greater occurring than any of them can understand.
This is what makes ‘Close Encounters’ such a unique film - it’s less about aliens and spaceships and more about the collapse of a family. Much as he would later with ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982), Spielberg uses the extraordinary circumstances to apply pressure to these characters and explore far more human ideas about family, parenthood and the push-and-pull between childhood and adulthood. After the thrill-ride of ‘Jaws’, it was a gamble to follow up with a film that mixes spectacle with emotional honesty the way he does in ‘Close Encounters’, but this is what made the film (and still makes it) such a moving and unique experience. Science fiction at the time was there for escapism or horror, the only exception being the overwhelming yet impenetrable grandeur of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Spielberg’s aim seemed to be to take the craftsmanship and scope of Kubrick’s masterpiece and make it about real people - families living in the suburbs unprepared to cope with something as incomprehensible as alien contact.
It’s been well-discussed that the divorce of his parents as a child was a major influence on the work Spielberg was to make, most notably in ‘E.T.’. That film captures the aftermath, while ‘Close Encounters’ looks at the process of collapse, making it arguably his most brutal and personal response to the divorce. With his childlike wonder and inquisitiveness, it’s easy to see Spielberg as Roy, but I think his presence in the Neary family is more so with the eldest son Brad (Shawn Bishop). He watches his father fall apart, his mother losing patience and fights escalating, and he directs his anger at his father, one minute a best pal and the next an inadequate hero to look up to. In Susan Lacy’s excellent 2017 documentary on the director, Spielberg talks about the moment where Brad slams the bathroom door on Roy repeatedly, yelling "cry baby!" over and over again, and how this was something he did to his own father. In the scene where Roy begins ripping up the garden to sculpt this image he can’t get out of his head, in the background Brad stands quietly, blank-faced and deeply upset watching his father let him down. The family dynamics of ‘Close Encounters’ are complicated, and with what Roy does at the end of the film, it’s unclear what the film has to say about the responsibilities of being a parent, but perhaps that’s the point. The film is concerned with those complications, but at that time, just dealing with the existence of them was enough for Spielberg to grapple with in the film and in himself.
This is what makes ‘Close Encounters’ such a unique film - it’s less about aliens and spaceships and more about the collapse of a family.
And yet the remarkable thing is that, built around the family drama is a mighty and often breathtaking piece of imaginative filmmaking. To capture the same sense of scale that Kubrick had achieved in ‘2001’, Spielberg worked with Douglas Trumbull on the visual effects. Trumbull had worked on ‘2001’, and brought to ‘Close Encounters’ the same kind of grounded spectacle. The use of visual effects is incredibly specific, the film taking what was necessity in ‘Jaws’ and turning it into an asset – showing as little of the spacecraft as possible. The big reveals in the last act are still staggering, but many of my favourite visual moments in the film are tiny – a small pinpoint of light crossing a sky filled with stars, a shadow flying over a driving car, little cheeky suggestions of wonder and awe. This becomes key to why ‘Close Encounters’ works so well, even after forty years. There’s a playfulness to it that’s incredibly endearing, the thrill of seeing moments bordering on horror (like the attack on Jillian’s house) mixed with slapstick or wholesome humour. It’s superbly shot and edited, with a typically extraordinary score from John Williams, but it brings a sense of wonder and awe to science fiction that hadn’t existed on film before.
Perhaps the greatest surprise for me the first time I saw ‘Close Encounters’ was how I responded to the ending. As the mothership descends and actual, physical contact is made between the human and alien races, I found myself moved so very, very deeply. I remember talking about the film to my grandmother, and she described something similar, a sense of something deep and spiritual that those images evoke. It’s there in the conversation they exchange through sound and light, a symphonic representation of excitement, curiosity and generosity. Off the back of Vietnam and Watergate, and with the Cold War still marching on, the film dared to imagine that two races could put aside differences and become fascinated by one another, create an exchange of ideas and share in the wonder of the universe. ‘Close Encounters’ betrays the naiveté of Spielberg, barely in his 30s and still finding his voice as a filmmaker, but that naiveté is an asset instead of a liability. The technical ambition of the film may have been enormous, but its thematic ambition is even greater and probably its greatest achievement. Those last few minutes - the hope and sheer wonder in every frame - still move me to tears.
‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ is a crossroad work in the filmography of Steven Spielberg. It begins the threads that would become the great concerns of his career, leading logically to later masterpieces like ‘E.T.’, ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993) and ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001), as well as establishing his understanding that visual effects are there to serve the story and not the other way around. But really, it’s the first time he truly let himself into a film and allowed himself to be personal. The result is a classic filled with childlike wonder and deep melancholy, a symphony of colour, light and determination in the face of the impossible. ‘Jaws’ may have been the film that made his name, but ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ was the film where we began to discover exactly who Steven Spielberg was.