According to Hollywood legend, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made a wager, at Lucas’s instigation, around 1976. Both of them were working on science-fiction blockbuster movies involving aliens that were due to debut the following year. Lucas, facing interference and skepticism from corporate executives, was convinced that his film was going to flop, and hatched the wager as a means of making the best of a bad situation. Hedging his bets, as it were. The wager was this: Whoever had the film with the largest box office take would give the other a small cut of the profits. Lucas was certain that he would wind up getting a cut of Spielberg’s film in this manner. Of course, it turns out he had nothing to worry about, as Lucas’s little film was Star Wars, and reportedly Spielberg still gets checks from Lucas to this day over the bet.
As it happens, though, Spielberg’s film wasn’t exactly a flop either. Close Encounters of the Third Kind met with its own success at the box office, and was critically acclaimed, and has become regarded as one of the preeminent films in the entire genre of science fiction.
Strange things are afoot in the desert.
The film is set in “the present day”; i.e., the mid-70s. As the film starts, the U.S. military is trying to figure out strange occurrences around the world, and particularly close to home. Planes thought lost for decades have suddenly reappeared just south of the Mexican border. They’ve been gone since the 1940s. They’re in perfect working order; there isn’t a scratch on them. But their pilots are nowhere to be seen. Where did they go? How did they get back? And where are the pilots?
Answers, of a sort, soon come in the form of some unidentified flying objects. But unlike the usual UFO sightings, these are being remarked upon by reliable witnesses, including air traffic personnel and military scientists. Led by French consultant Claude Lacombe, they try to investigate while at the same time trying to keep things under wraps to avoid a panic or interference. Lacombe is played by highly-regarded director François Truffaut, and whether he’s speaking through his translator (played by David Laughlin) or through his own broken English, his sense of curiosity and compassion come through.
Even during an interrogation, of all things.
Of course, the government isn’t the only witness to the alien fly-bys. Several ordinary citizens witness the saucers go by, and they are left changed by the experience. Melinda Dillon plays Jillian, a single mother whose son (Cary Guffey) wanders off in search of the bright lights, with the innocence and trust only a young child can have. She desperately searches for him after his abduction, and Dillon turns in a solid performance as a woman who is both distraught over the loss of her son and bewildered by what she’s gone through — but determined to recover her son no matter what she has to face. But Jillian’s story and the government’s are both the B-and-C-plots to the A-plot of the film, which focuses on Richard Dreyfuss’s role as Roy Neary.
Roy is an electrical engineer who witnesses the saucers with Jillian and the others. Like the other witnesses, he’s haunted by the sound that was sent — five chimes in a clear musical message — and a vision that all the witnesses have had implanted in their subconscious minds. A place. A mountain. Roy is desperate to find out what it all means. His wife, played by Teri Garr, is dismissive at first, and becomes increasingly alarmed as Roy becomes more and more driven. Initially it’s hard for the audience to sympathize with her; we know what Roy saw, and we know he isn’t crazy. When she dismisses it out of hand, we know she’s wrong. But as Roy becomes more and more obsessive, and she keeps struggling to bring him back to Earth, it’s hard to ignore that she has a very legitimate pain. Roy’s marriage is broken because Roy’s mind is broken. He has, quite simply, gone mad over what he’s seen.
Train collectors are always a little batty to begin with.
Dreyfuss is in top form as Neary, playing him as both a loving father and a man obsessed over something he can’t express. We see him gradually slip down into insanity while every step of the way showing that he truly believes his actions are perfectly logical. That his conclusions are 100% correct just adds to the combined sense of tension and wonder.
It all leads to a fantastic climax when the contact with the aliens finally comes. The special effects are a treat to look at, and the entire sequence is one of the best “first contact” scenes in all of science fiction — and I’m not saying “all of science fiction cinema”, I’m including novels as well. It’s joyous, awe-inspiring, and a little intimidating all at the same time.
The one thing we can be sure of is that the aliens like neon.
As both a movie fan and a science fiction fan, Close Encounters of the Third Kind has long been a glaring omission in my viewing experience. Now I finally have the ability to be among those recommending it to others, and I do so without reservation. It’s one of the finest science fiction films ever made.