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On Nov. 15, 1977, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind held its world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York before hitting wide release and eventually earning nine Oscar noms at the 50th Academy Awards ceremony. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
To get to the bottom line with minimum delay, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a terrific movie, with every possibility of equaling the box-office popularity of Star Wars. The comparison is inevitable, but it certainly isn’t odious. Once again, in this Julia and Michael Phillips production, the accent falls on the special effects, and they are nothing short of spectacular, climaxed by a monster UFO that literally fills the screen — and the stereo speakers. It’s like an awesome light show that stuns the senses.
It isn’t, however, a horror show even though we have, to use the phrase, “actual contact with the occupants of a UFO,” and some of the earlier sightings involve phenomena every bit as chilling and mystifying as The Exorcist. Steven Spielberg’s script is grounded in the belief that UFOs do in fact exist (at one point a reporter states that while he has been covering air crashes for 20 years, he has never actually seen one); and Spielberg’s direction — aided by a battery of special effects people — makes them palpable enough to convince even the most confirmed skeptic. And John Williams’ impressive, massive score cancels out any possibility that Spielberg, unlike George Lucas, is working with his tongue in his cheek. If this be kidding, it’s kidding on the square.
Like many of today’s movies, Close Encounters opens with a series of seemingly unrelated sequences — the discovery of a lost squadron of World War II planes in a Western desert, the appearance of an unidentified blip on the screen of the Indianapolis traffic control tower, a small child lured from his bed by an unearthly bright light and the sight of all of his toys magically springing into action. The story itself begins when an Indiana repairman (Richard Dreyfuss) is dispatched to investigate a widespread power failure and has his own first “close encounter.”
While thoroughly frightened by the experience, Dreyfuss also finds himself oddly exhilarated and fascinated by his sightings, as is a group of people that he comes across on a hillside — among them Melinda Dillon, searching for her little boy. The following night, when they return to the hillside, the boy is carried away by a UFO. When Dreyfuss tries to explain to his wife (Terri Garr) what he has seen, she refuses to believe him. When he tries to report it to his company, he gets fired.
Meanwhile, a French phenomenologist (Francois Truffaut) who heads a large international group of scientists attempts to find the rationale behind the UFOs, and ways to communicate with them. Although officially our government denies their very existence, the Army authorizes a huge task force to work with the scientists in discovering the source and purpose of the night-streaking visitors. Truffaut ultimately succeeds in “reading” their language (which consists of musical tones at varied intervals), and determines that their focal point is the remote Devils Tower in the mountain vastness of Wyoming.
But Dreyfuss — and others who have had similar sightings — begin to see the tower in their mind’s eye. When they discover where and what it is, they are determined to journey there, only to find that the Army has already cordoned off the place. Dreyfuss and Dillon, however, manage to break through, arriving just in time for the climactic sighting, when the smaller space travelers dramatically give way to their gigantic mother ship.
Obviously, a film of this kind succeeds or fails on the quality of the imagination creating the extraterrestrial phenomena. And in Douglas Trumbull, whose previous credits include 2001 and Silent Running, Spielberg found the best. Without minimizing the effectiveness of Star Wars, the visuals here — swirling clouds from which the spacecraft materialize, a kitchen that goes berserk as whatever it is from outer space seeks entry, the multicolored flashes of light that accompany the mother ship’s “language,” the vast, dazzling ramp that disgorges the space passengers — are never less than stunning in their impact, yet always seem well within the realm of possibility.
It is also to Spielberg’s credit, however, that despite all of this visual opulence, his actors are never dwarfed. Dreyfuss is outstanding as a man becoming fiendishly obsessed by his need to know and understand what he has seen, and Dillion is no less effective as the distraught mother who joins him on his trek to the West. Garr has some memorable moments as Dreyfuss‘ wife, growing increasingly terrified by her husband’s erratic, seemingly irrational behavior. And Truffaut, the noted director, is the calm in the eye of the hurricane, a pillar of quiet strength in the pursuit of his extraordinary mission.
A final word must be said for the soundtrack of Close Encounters. Recorded in Dolby sound, it is far more than simply music and effects. In crowd scenes, it supplies a palpable texture. In scenes of the UFOs flashing across the night sky, the multichannels create added dimensions of space. Even in the Dreyfuss home, where the kids are constantly fighting while their mother tries wearily to calm them or carry on a conversation with her husband, the overlapping of tracks immeasurably enhance the sense of the scene’s reality. Coupled with Vilmos Zsigmond’s crisply detailed camera work (with credited assists from William Fraker, Douglas Slocombe, John Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs and Frank W. Stanley), the result is a film of incredible power and intensity.
It is also, and ultimately, reassuring. Those things out there from outer space, Spielberg tells us, mean us no harm. They’re really friendly creatures, once you get to know them. One of the virtues of Close Encounters is that it makes us want to know more. — Arthur Knight, originally published on Nov. 4, 1977.
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