We are in the midst of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind re-release in celebration of the film’s 40th anniversary (though it wasn’t actually released until December). I was a seventh grader when this film came out, and it was the first (and one of the very few) movies I became fully swept up in the way the modern kid consumer is supposed to. By contrast, the only Star Wars merch I’d bought was the 45 single of the silly Cantina music; but Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters was a different story. I went to see it at the cinema more than once, I bought the soundtrack record and wore out the grooves, I hung the poster on my wall, and I even bought the paperback novelization, and read it several times. I can only think of a very few other contemporary movies I engaged with in this manner. I bought the soundtrack to 1941 (1979), I based Halloween costumes on Robin Williams’ Popeye (1980), and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), and when a little older I enthusiastically went to toga parties inspired by Animal House (1978). But these are the only ones I can think of, and it was clearly a phase; the thing to do at the age I was at the time. I’m the same age as the kids in Super 8 (2011) and Stranger Things, season one (2016). So I know I’m hardly unique in this enthusiasm. Like the kids in Super 8, we even made our own Super 8 films, although we were never lucky enough to encounter aliens.
Why was I particularly swept up by Close Encounters? It struck a chord. It was very much in tune with its times, and I was just kind of the perfect age (12) for it. UFOs were BIG in the ’70s. It had of course been a mass phenomenon since the late 1940s, but the ’70s were characterized by a kind of ACCEPTANCE of all sorts of freaky, out-there perspectives, a holdover from the alternative lifestyle energy from the 1960s. There were parapsychology departments at universities! There were pseudoscientific cults like Scientology! There was the widely disseminated 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage of Bigfoot! There were the In Search Of books, films and television series! Tabloid newspapers exploded (in number and circulation) in the 1970s when they began to be distributed in supermarkets! And it crept into pop culture. Bigfoot became a semi-regular on The Six Million Dollar Man! (By the way, R.I.P. to Richard Anderson who passed away on August 31. I played his Oscar Goldman character many a time on the playground.)
As a kid I gobbled all this stuff up. I know I wasn’t alone. (Get it? “We are not alone”?) People were just kind of primed for a movie about alien visitation. And the marketing was brilliant. Look at the poster above; there is a sort of implication that it’s a true story somehow. People wanted the answer! More context: America’s manned moon shots had been discontinued in 1972; the last Skylab mission had been early 1974. The first Space Shuttle launch was not until 1981. The most visible space exploration at the time (other than unmanned probes like Viking 1, which landed on Mars in 1976) was SETI activity — pointing lots of listening devices at the stars to search for extraterrestrial life.
Listening devices?! That reminds me that it was also the post-Nixon, post-Vietnam era, and here too the film resonated. There’s this wonderful anti-government paranoia to it, a definite left wing libertarian spirit. “The government is hidin’ the TRUTH from us, man!!! What don’t they want to us to know, people?!”
And….Spielberg’s just such a brilliant film-maker, within certain bounds. I feel like this is one of about a half dozen films that Spielberg just nailed it. He was the right man for the job. Among the film’s accomplishments: he reinvented an entire genre, turned it on its head. It’s not like UFO films didn’t exist before. Most of them were pretty cheesy genre exercises from the 1950s, drive-in movie fare about “flying saucers”. Some, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) possessed a certain profundity, but by the mid ’70s, the genre’s reputation was closer to Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959). People thought of pie plates and hubcaps on fishing wire. Close Encounters was the opposite of low budget; it was BIG budget. The special effects spectacle was unlike anything anyone had ever seen (quite different even from the effects in the equally groundbreaking Star Wars), and with top notch acting (Richard Dreyfus, then at the height of his career, Terri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, and — quite magically — the great French director Francois Truffaut, whose own sci-fi outing Fahrenheit 51 had been made a decade earlier.)
The most powerful scene is probably the one where Dillon’s toddler is abducted; one is reminded of the moment in the original War of the Worlds, when the hero hides out in a house while an alien searches nearby…very close.
There are strong echoes of Hitchcock in the film. The poisonous crop duster summons the one that terrorizes Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The use of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is like Hitchcock’s use of monuments and landmarks in a dozen films. And Dreyfus and Dillon are running in a twist on the famous Hitchcock “double chase”: simultaneously running towards something (their visions, the aliens, a kidnapped child) and away from the authorities.
Dreyfus’s character also happens to be running from his responsibilities, and this has always filled me and many others with a certain disquiet. “Wait a minute — can he just go like that? And leave his wife and kids?” At the same time, anyone who’s ever been an artist, an inventor, an entrepreneur, or even an extreme hobbyist, feels the film’s emotional pull. You know what it is to be obsessed with this thing in your head that no one else understands, and to take heat for it when you neglect the more quotidian responsibilities. And anyway, who leaves whom in this movie? The wife and kids leave DREYFUS if you recall, and he BEGS them to come back! That’s in there! You can’t say that’s not in there!
Man, I’ve always loved the image on the movie poster — a road leading into the distance. You have no idea what’s at the other end. You just go. You have to go. Some people are stayers, others HAVE to find out what that light is down the road. Most people never hear the music, see the show, or take the ride. Most people never even open the invitation.