Engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is called out one night when a power cut hits the city he lives in. But there seems to be otherwordly involvement when Roy witnesses UFOs flying through the sky, which will have a tumultuous effect on his life...
The epic science fiction fantasy Close Encounters of the Third Kind was written by Steven Spielberg from an original script by Paul Schrader. Space aliens and flying saucers had made a comeback in the 1970's, and this blockbuster was the ultimate pop culture answer to all the sightings, telling the audience that yes, we are not alone in the universe, there really is something out there.
Spielberg makes sure to ground the weirdness in everyday goings-on. The brightly lit saucers and their paranormal effects are contrasted with Roy's humdrum homelife, and scenes where the aliens make their presence felt involve mundane things such as toys, vacuum cleaners, incongruous songs played on radios and record players and, of course, the TV is always on. Cleverly, it is the television that draws the contactees to their isolated meeting place.
Communication - or lack of it - is a recurring theme. In an opening sequence, we see the Jacques Vallee-style ufologist Lacombe (François Truffaut) trying to make sense of a three way conversation in English, Spanish and French. Roy's wife (Teri Garr) increasingly has trouble getting any sense out of her husband, and the ending involves the earthlings and aliens trying to get through to each other with a music and light show that Jean Michel Jarre would be proud of.
This is not your average space opera, Close Encounters actually resembles a tale of religious obsession. Dreyfuss's committed performance holds it all together, as a man grappling with the unknown but finding an all-consuming faith, not in God, but in extraterrestrials. Spielberg plays up the sense of awe and spiritual wonder in an attempt to make the film an uplifting experience - we often see characters gazing open-mouthed into the sky.
More cynical viewers may find all the cosmic innocence and wide-eyed marvels a little hard to take (there are no anal probes here), but to Spielberg's credit he never slips into a knowing smugness, mixing humour with the action. And Douglas Trumbull's special effects are truly excellent. But the story is thin, and Roy's family consist of three bratty kids and a wife who doesn't understand him, so that you're not bothered when he selfishly leaves them to fly off and meet the space brothers.
Considering this project suits Spielberg's style so well, it's ironic that he's never been happy with the way Close Encounters turned out. There are a number of different versions of the film, including the original, the special edition (where you see inside the mothership at the end) and the collector's edition (where you don't see inside the mothership, but the amusing house wrecking sequence is reinstated). So take your pick.
Also with: R2D2 hanging upside down from the mothership (true) and consultant ufologist J. Allen Hynek with his pipe. Watch for clips of The Ten Commandments and the great Daffy Duck cartoon "Duck Dodgers" on TV. That famous score is by John Williams, naturally. Anyone else think that the aliens, when we finally see them, look a bit daft? What did they think they were playing at anyway, making an interstellar nuisance of themselves?
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.