Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

In 1977 or thereabouts, a film was released that changed the lives of many genre film fans. That film was Star Wars (and the subsequent sequels), and many who saw it that first time around cite it as THE film that launched them on the road to a lifelong love of all things sci-fi and genre. I loved the film too, with its tale of the never-ending fight between good and evil, and the ultimate triumph of good.  However,  there was another film that came out the same year, a film that did the same for me as Star Wars had done for others and changed my life quite profoundly. That film was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It was the absolutely perfect cinematic experience for a young boy of 14. I’d been reading a lot of science fiction up to that point – Silverberg, Asimov, Heinlein and others. I had also been brought up on a diet of 50s/60s style sci-fi films, which, although exciting and full of wonder in their own way, were still highly unrealistic, even to my young eyes. Then there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just found that baffling. That’s the way it stayed  until CE3K came out – and then my whole universe suffered a complete seismic shift.

I was interested in UFOs and extraterrestrial life just at that point, and had been for quite some while. I’d amassed a small library of tomes, including the most famous one of all – Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Before the advent of the internet advance publicity for films was solely by word of mouth, or articles in magazines and newspapers, or items on the television. I can’t even remember where I first heard about the film, but I do remember being eager to go and see it. Where I lived, however, even blockbuster films took anything up to six months or a year to finally reach us. Waiting was agony.

However, reach us it did. I went to see it, with my best mate Karl, at the Palace Cinema at the top of Market Street in dear old Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, in Wales. The buzz about it was tremendous and I had high hopes for it. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a spectacularly brilliant film, and portrayed family man Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) breakdown in the wake of being confronted by an event so momentous and huge that he struggles to cope with its import – the first actual actual encounter with the craft of an advanced alien, technological species. And he isn’t the only one so affected. Slowly and inexorably a privileged group of people, those who have also witnessed the same craft, are being drawn together, driven by purpose and curiosity. Even an unworldly fourteen-year-old like me could understand just how earth-shattering the impact of coming into contact with another civilisation would be on us.

It was not just the story that made an impression – it was the effects as well. Incredibly agile and brightly-lit craft seemingly defying gravity and physics, tumbling effortlessly through the skies of earth. More than that, however, is that the effects were subservient to the story and not the other way around, as is too often the case these days. They were so seamlessly integrated that you were willingly swept up in the necessary ‘suspension of disbelief’ and carried along on the tides of emotion and hope that the film represented. Everybody in the cinema felt the same, it was so palpable.

What really underscored it all, was the one scene which has burned itself into the memory so deeply. Night-time: the secret rendezvous point set up by the US Government and military, right at the foot of Devil’s Mountain, Wyoming. We all knew the mothership was on its way; we could see the roiling cloudbanks forming in the clear skies and we all wondered just what it would look like. And then….

… it rose up from behind the mountain, to a collective exclamation of “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” from the audience.

The hairs stood up on the back of my neck – the sheer SIZE of the mothership took the breath away. It was the last thing anyone expected. It was just the most beautiful moment I’d ever experienced, an experience that thrilled me like nothing had before (or since, for that matter). I felt as if I had been close to a revelation of some kind. I shall never forget that moment, ever.

The other memorable element is that five-note riff that Francois Truffaut’s character comes up with in order to communicate with the aliens. Everytime I hear it I get the shudders and goose pimples – something so simple yet so highly effective. I bought the soundtrack album just so I could hear it over and over. It just telegraphed something mysterious and emotional – and yet, like I say, it only contains five notes.

Since then, of course, I have seen the film numerous times, all on the small screen. Necessarily its impact has been lessened, but I am still reminded of that delicious frisson I got when I first saw it. Apart from blowing my interest in sci-fi (and science and extraterrestrial life) wide open, it left me with a powerful idea of what film could achieve if done right. It was the first time I had been geuinely moved by a piece of celluloid. I can’t think of many films since then that have done the same (maybe the films of Hayao Miyazaki have come closest, as has Tim Burton’s Big Fish – that’s a wonderful film).

One other thing it left me with – possibilities. A feeling that this vast universe of ours hides many wondrous things and that we still have infinite amounts more to discover about it. And that. for me, is an absolutely incredible feeling….

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8 Responses to “Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND”

  1. I’m not a big sci-fi fan but I do like this film a lot.

    Smashing article.

  2. Three cheers, Simon… I’m glad to read that somebody else felt about CE3K – as I did. I’ve grown to admire 2001 but I simply adored CE3K on a fundamental level. It managed to combine Sf, spectacle, scale, intelligence, intimacy, emotion and mythic resonance like few films I can remember. I think it’s a pivotal cultural moment of popular imagination, in fact. Also, like the work of Nigel Kneale (1984 adaptation, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, THE STONE TAPE, etc) it convinced me that “genre” stories could be both exciting and intelligent. And that endeavour was nothing at all to be ashamed of.

  3. I saw it on release back in ’78, and probably sat through the entire climax with my jaw hanging down. Today, of course, we are used to that kind of SFX, so no film today is going to have that kind of an impact.

  4. I think it will still have an impact because it is more than just special effects. After all today’s CGI is often numbingly empty as in TRANSFORMERS. It is all about storytelling in CE3K. It is sheer emotion at the end on an epic, almost religious level. It portrays something mind blowing for Mankind and it is the contect of the entire story – which operates on many levels, even Biblical – that gives the climax its unforgettable power. The hand gestures, the exploding glass, the five tones, the Frenchman’s quest, but it’s finally the ordinary guy not the intellectual who goes with them… the awe bordering on hysterical laughter… Brilliant. Now I want to watch it again.

  5. Neil Williams Says:

    Simon

    Do you prefer the original version or the special edition? I always found the SE lacked something because it cut back on the small domestic details in favour of ships in deserts.

    • I actually prefer the SE ad it added a new dimension to the scope of the aliens’ visitations – but I can also see how Roy’s story could have been affected by the cutting out of family scenes. One could argues successfully that the SE removed much of the mystery surrounding the aliens, but I seriously thinik it depends on your world view – I would much prefer to be out there sailing in amongst the stars if I could than be stuck down here on earth – so the extra emphasis oon our visitors was more my thing…

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