I want to try to get all the banked reviews out while I still remember enough about them to comment on anything on the off chance someone actually comments. It’s…happened…once or twice. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is one of those science fiction movies fans tell you is a must watch, or at least they did. I don’t hear people talk about it much anymore and I can’t remember the last time anyone made an homage to that one scene with the musical saucer…the only scene anyone seems to want to talk about. Surely there’s more to the movie than that, right?
Well, it was long past time that I found out. All I ever knew about the movie is that scene and that Spielberg directed. Actually, I didn’t even think about that until just now. Did anybody really talk about this movie outside of those two factoids? Maybe my response isn’t so bad after all? Well, let’s find out.
Close encounter of the fourth kind is dating.
RELEASE DATE: 1978
RELEASED BY: Columbia Pictures
RUNTIME: 2 hours 18 min
VIEWING SOURCE FOR THIS REVIEW: Turner Classic Movies
STARRING: Richard Dreyfuss, Terri Garr, Melinda Dillon, and François Truffaut
SCREENWRITERS: Steven Spielberg, Jerry Belson, Hal Barwood, John Hill, and Mathew Robbins
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
BOX OFFICE: $306,889,114 worldwide, $135,189,114 domestic according to IMDB
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $20,000,000 according to IMDB
The Plot: Mysterious things happen around the world. Planes thought long missing suddenly show up. A strange tune keeps popping up in people’s heads. In Indiana a power company worker (Dreyfuss) along with a woman (Dillon) and her toddler son (Cary Guffey) are among witnesses to strange craft flying down the interstate. All three are also experiencing a strange vision of a mound that seeps into paintings and sculptures. But where is it? What’s the connection to the music? And will their lives be the same?
Why did I want to see it: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is considered a science fiction masterpiece, so as a fan of the genre I almost felt as compelled to see it as the characters do with the mountain. It’s like a science fiction rite of passage or something.
What did I think: Let me preface this by saying this really wasn’t a movie for me. I can certainly appreciate the technical achievements for the time and I’m certainly not going to challenge its place in sci-fi but the story itself just really isn’t what I personally look for and I have some questions that I’ll warn you about before putting it into a paragraph. Otherwise I won’t ruin anything in case you have plans to see it yourself someday.
First off the effects are not only good for their time, I think they actually hold up. There are advantages that physical models and lighting have over computer generated images, though the reverse is also true. I’m not sure the ships would be as impressive with modern effect styles just because you have the impression that it would be a lot easier (whether or not that’s true I’ll leave to SFX experts). They don’t show up a lot in the story because they aren’t really the point.
The point is seeing how the people react to this. The worker becomes estranged from his family (more on that in the spoiler paragraph), the woman deals with losing her son at one point and the reaction of others, and there’s the sense of wonder that’s supposed to come with the initial sighting, the various draws to a certain location, and mixing that with how people would honestly react both positively and negatively. The performances are quite good on that level. SF Debris defended Jake Lloyd’s portrayal as young Anakin in The Phantom Menace once by noting how Spielberg got the toddler to react the way they wanted, using tricks that would invoke the right responses in the boy. It noted that the problems in Lloyd’s performance came from the directing and having seen the full movie I have to admit he’s right.
Dreyfuss plays a man who is otherwise completely sane but keeps having an image in his head that he can’t properly let out until the right visuals connect what’s in his head with the real world. The woman goes through the same thing and while we meet others with the same visions after the same encounter they don’t really explore it and that leads to my problem with the movie. Unfortunately I have to risk stronger spoilers to go over that but the short version is that the ending doesn’t quite pay off the way I thought it would. There’s a sense of wonder at seeing the ship but I don’t get what’s being said here, if anything at all. It’s like the magic of the ship is all that matters and it doesn’t feel like enough.
THIS IS THE SPOILER PARAGRAPH! If you don’t want spoilers, move to the next paragraph. Worker goes off with the aliens. So what happens to his wife (Garr, who despite doing a good job should not have gotten a higher billing than Dillon, at least on IMDB, considering the wife isn’t nearly as important to the story and disappears partway through as her husband goes more and more crazy) and kids? What if anything are they told when they finally come home and find a giant sculpture of an actual mountain that supposedly had a nerve gas scare and the husband/father possibly to never return after seemingly going crazy? Was the government right to keep the crowds away even when the aliens seemed to be calling them all there? Why were the people who were drawn here chosen? Were they connected to the humans on the ship like the missing pilots who haven’t aged, and what happened to them? Why was the boy taken and then brought back? Did they actually learn the musical language of the aliens or was this just one big game of Simon? There are all these questions that never get answered. The mother ship is amazing and all (apparently I missed the R2-D2 cameo though the TCM host pointed where it was) but for a movie where one of the main characters is hunting answers there aren’t a whole lot for the audience. OKAY, SPOILERS DONE!
Was It Worth The Wait: Not for me. Maybe back in 1978 I would have been more impressed, and not just because I was about the same age as the boy, but by 2022 the ending just doesn’t work for me. There’s too many questions at the end and the wonder just isn’t enough to satisfy me. Maybe if I had seen it sooner I’d enjoy it more, and most of the film is good if not in my wheelhouse, but as it stands I think this is one of those movies I just saw too late in life.