I remember first seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind at about ten years old. I had stumbled upon it at the library, enticed by the mysterious space ship on the cover of the VHS tape and recognized the star, Richard Dreyfuss, as the young guy from Jaws. Already, I was a Steven Spielberg fan and could not wait to see a movie of his that was new to me. Though my young mind didn’t make all the plot connections, the idea of making peaceful contact with aliens and a psychic message sent to all that had seen them intrigued me. Now, sixteen years later, I have found this movie on blu-ray and it is like rediscovering the film all over again. Every image is clear, bright and crisp, so much better than a worn and borrowed tape. And even though I know what will happen, Close Encounters is a movie that always keeps me curious, excited and fills me with wonder like I was a kid again.
The title can feel long and clunky if you do not know what it means. Basically, there are three main kinds of alien encounters. The first is a small fluke with no evidence left, like just seeing a saucer overhead. The second is an encounter that does leave evidence, like a crop circle or the half sunburn Dreyfuss sports in the film. The third is actual contact. Knowing that ahead of time gives you a better understanding of what to expect.
In the film, these encounters are happening all over the world, with a government team not far behind them, investigating. In India, planes that were deemed missing in 1945 are found in the desert. The people witnessing this event say that the sun came out in the middle of the night and sang to them. In Indiana, a power outage sends Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) out to fix the problem, but he has an amazing encounter. Nearby, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) discovers her three year old son being drawn to something. Soon, we are all dazzled by the bright lights of alien spaceships whizzing along the roads and off into the sky.
After the eventful night, Roy, Jillian and others who saw the lights begin obsessing over an image in their minds. While Jillian draws, her son plays five notes on his toy xylophone and Roy sculpts the image. The scene where Roy pulls up plants, steals his neighbor’s fence and throws dirt into his house to create this image is wonderfully hilarious, while bringing out the seriousness Roy sees in his vision. Eventually, Roy, Jillian and many others figure out that they need to travel to Devil’s Peak in Wyoming, where the government officials are preparing for contact with the aliens. But they are trying to keep the alien situation under wraps, and their plan to evacuate the area makes Roy’s journey there much more hazardous.
The more I see this film, the more I understand how Roy is a perfect candidate for alien contact. He feels like a full grown Elliot from E.T., a real kid at heart. I doubt that model train in his basement is for his kids, and after his initial contact, he drags his wife and kids out in the middle of the night in hopes of all of them seeing the alien ships. They could not care less. I always feel that Roy’s real personality is shown best when he is recklessly collecting dirt and plants for his giant sculpture. And the wonder and joy on his face in the final scenes are uplifting and perfect.
One of the most memorable thing about Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the five note message. It progresses from singing in the Indian desert to calculated tones, later with matching colored lights and hand gestures. The film comes down to this simple, peaceful communication that brings closure to some mysteries and opens up more and more.
While this film was nominated for many Oscars, won for Cinematography and a special achievement award for Sound Effects editing, it was not nominated for Best Picture. To me, it feels like such a crime that Julia got the nomination while Close Encounters of the Third Kind did not. Part of me guesses that putting two science fiction films up for Best Picture would have been too much for the Academy and Star Wars was the more obvious contender.
Nonetheless, Close Encounters of the Third Kind has survived the test of time well. The special effects used are even more beautiful on Blu-ray and do not have an obsolete feeling. Best of all, the tale of a shared psychic communication and the drive to find its meaning feels full of hope and wonder, like only a Spielberg film can. This is one of those films that I suggest everyone see at some point in their lives. Turn the lights down, the volume up and just immerse yourself in it.
“If everything’s ready here on the Dark Side of the Moon… play the five tones.”