CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND —-George Lucas and his Force may have brought mass-popularity and awe back into the sci-fi genre (it had been nearly a decade since 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes), but it took this instant classic from Steven Spielberg to give it a shot of respectability and plausibility. Released the same year as Star Wars, this $20,000,000 epic was the third most successful film of 1977 and drew unanimous critical praise to go with mobs of ticket-buyers, who shelled out a worldwide tally of $307,000,000 (before inflation).
The sweeping yet human-sized tale has numerous man-on-ground encounters with UFOs, zeroing in on the particular views offered and effects felt by a couple of average folks, played by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon. The first third of the film is brilliant in pacing and suspense, in an affectionate portrayal of small-town America and for knock-out excitement of close-up spaceships. As the story unfolds the location work enlarges the scope from Indiana to India and Mongolia, finally back to Wyoming for the grand finale.
Momentum slows down some in the middle third, then winds up with gee-whiz display of visual razzle-dazzle that dropped jaws on all but the most jaded. Looks of awe and gazes of weepy disbelief pile on, especially from Dillon, who has tear ducts that would task Niagara. Spielberg’s scripting is clever: his approach to—and approach of-— alien visitors is fresh; his direction stem-to-stern is masterful, showing flair not just for the spectacular and exciting, but with an eagle eye for props and settings as adept as his handling of child actors—he showed himself to be without peer in that delicate hopscotch. His adults do well here, too. Dreyfuss hones a believably warm and sympathetic character. Dillon is soft, earthy, sexy as hell. The swarm of supporting players are well chosen, except the casting of French director Francois Truffaut seems a ploy to the aforementioned respectability: while a well meant gesture, he just slows down each scene he’s in with his limited English skills making for a monotone delivery.
John Williams’ scoring contributes greatly (recall how dramatic that opening piece sounded in the theater Dolby). All of the good stuff here ultimately revolves around the showpieces, the UFOs, marvelous light-shows of breath-catching beauty. The Mother Ship is a titanic kaleidescope of technical wizardry.
Vilmos Zsigmond framed the grand cinematography and it won him an Oscar. * Other nominations went up for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Dillon), Film Editing, Music Score, Art Direction, Sound and Visual Effects. A special award was given for Sound Effects Editing (not then a category). The original cut was 135 minutes. In 1980 Spielberg re-released it as CE3K “The Special Edition”, which ran 132 minutes. It had new footage and was honed down in the mid-section (the role played by Carl Weathers is one of the pieces missing in that version). Further down the line came a third revamp at 137.
Version 1, 2 or 3, credit Spielberg for ingeniously crafting a fable about intergalactic contact between mysterious cosmic voyagers and we puny down-home mortals that probes beyond fear and excitement into the hopeful and benign (he’d course-correct later with War Of The Worlds).
With Teri Garr (perfect), Cary Guffey (wonderful child actor), Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen, Warren Kemmerling, Roberts Blossom, Philip Dodds, J. Patrick McNamara, George DiCenzo.
* Other top-line cameramen who worked on the picture (doing about 10% of it) included John A. Alonzo, William A. Fraker, László Kovács and Douglas Slocombe. The box office take, adjusted for inflation comes to a galactic $1,156,300,000.