1977 may have been the year of Star Wars, but six months after we were introduced to Luke Skywalker we got another sci-fi classic, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And though Star Wars has never left our collective consciousness (the ninth in the series—if you count Rogue One—is headed to theaters in December), Close Encounters has always just sat in the background, sequel-less but certainly not forgotten.
An effects-driven antithesis of Star Wars’ sprawling space drama, it’s a story about real people here on Earth, and but for the bell-bottoms and mid-70s cars, it could just as easily be set in any “present day”. A lot of time may have passed, but it still holds up as an utterly phenomenal motion picture.
It’s been 40 years, in fact, which is what prompted this re-mastered 4K release. The picture has been cleaned up, and the re-processed sound shakes the walls of the theater, but the story has remained in its original (pristine) condition. Richard Dreyfuss is Roy Neary, an Indiana electrical worker whose obsession with the UFOs that fly over his truck one night leads him all the way to Devil’s Tower and the film’s climactic closing scene of the alien mothership landing.
At the same time, Melinda Dillon’s Jillian is on her own collision course with the arrival, after her son Barry (Cary Guffey) is abducted from their farmhouse one night. And French researcher Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) is busy decoding perhaps Hollywood’s most famous five-note musical sequence in his own effort to make contact with the extra-terrestrials.
The real beauty of the film though (and the the thing which makes it not only timeless but relatable) is the real sense of the people involved. When we first meet Roy he’s in his authentically messy house talking with his son about his math homework before discussing family movie night. And single-mother Jillian never tries to be a hero but instead acts the way we would expect a normal person in her position to act. Close Encounters never stops being a movie about real people in an extraordinary situation, even as the aliens walk down the ramp of the mothership, flash a smile, and then fly away.
That being said, it would be criminal to neglect the visual effects, which, yes, lost out to Star Wars at the 1977 Oscars. From the advance-scout UFOs to the foreboding cloud formations to the aliens themselves, they help make Close Encounters the memorable movie it’s always been, particularly in the sci-fi world (though Spielberg himself considers it more of a Watergate allegory—government cover-up of a conspiracy—than science fiction).
Regardless, forty years after it first dazzled audiences, Close Encounters is back (though only for a week) and well-worth another visit.