I took my twelve year old daughter to see the 4K restoration of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind, re-released in cinemas last month and on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray to celebrate its 40th birthday. It got me thinking, had I been taken by my parents to a 40th anniversary re-release back in 1977, it would have been to something like Way
This notion made this encounter with Close Encounters all the more extraordinary. Here was a film almost as old as I am, that was so spellbinding, so dazzling and mesmerising, its effects so mint-fresh and shiny that it might as well have premiered last week. Furthermore, the depiction of raw human dysfunction and madness at its heart was genuinely shocking, largely perhaps because devastating emotional honesty is something that has been airbrushed from mainstream blockbusters over the years and left to the likes of Michael Haneke to mull over.
Close Encounters may have come a distant second to that other aliens and spaceships film from 1977 – though Spielberg’s playful trading of 2.5 percentage points of George Lucas’s Star Wars grosses would make that bitter pill easier to swallow – but watched now, in all its pin-sharp big screen glory, it’s clear that this is a milestone in mainstream movie-making and proved the making of Spielberg as one of the few truly great visionary directors.
It was meant to be the follow-up to The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s bittersweet 1974 debut (not counting Duel). Spielberg had long harboured an obsession with outer space and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life ever since he witnessed a meteor shower as a child; his first ever attempt at moviemaking in 1964 was an alien invasion film called Firelight. Producers Julia and Michael Phillips shared Spielberg’s passion for 1950s sci-fi movies and over drinks one night, they all agreed to get an alien movie off the ground. Their initial title, Watch The Skies was a tip of the hat to Howard Hawks’s influential The Thing From Another World.
Retitled Project Blue Book and conceived at the time of Watergate, it largely concentrated on the covering-up of UFO activity by shady government agents. Columbia started picking up the tabs and future Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader was enlisted to work on the screenplay, which Schrader titled Kingdom Come. However, he and Spielberg were quickly at odds over what kind of central character they wanted at the heart of the tale. Schrader’s protagonist was a skeptical government agent working for the Pentagon who becomes a believer and uncovers a project set up to make contact with alien life forms.
Spielberg wanted his hero to be a normal Joe, a working father from the suburbs of his own youth. Schrader reportedly told him, “If someone’s going to represent me and the human race to get on a spaceship, I don’t want my representative to be a guy who eats all his meals at McDonalds.” Spielberg replied, “That’s exactly what I do want!” With that, the project stalled; in any case, the $2.5m budget that Columbia were offering was never going to touch the sides. Spielberg slunked over to Universal where fate put him in the same room as an advance copy of a recently purchased novel about a coastal town menaced by a malevolent fish…
The unprecedented success of Jaws in 1975 gave Spielberg the opportunity to make pretty much any damn film he wanted and his passion for a huge, widescreen, big budget UFO movie was rekindled. He returned to Columbia with a copy of Jaws’s grosses in his pocket and told them he wanted $12m. Displaying sage foresight that would desert them five years later when they turned down ET, they said yes.
It is hard now to imagine anyone else playing the central, McDonalds-frequenting character of Roy Neary other than Richard Dreyfuss. Perhaps more than any actor in Jaws, Dreyfuss had emerged with the most star-wattage, playing the funniest, most likeable character. Even now, Dreyfuss remains the ultimate onscreen Spielberg-representative. However, astonishingly, Spielberg initially had Steve McQueen in mind. Jack Nicholson too was on the cards and despite his new-found fame, Dreyfuss had to lobby for the part.
The other major role proved to be one of the biggest casting coups of the decade. French Nouvelle Vague pioneer François Truffaut, director of The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, was nothing less than a God to the American New Hollywood directors of the 1970s. Spielberg managed to tempt Truffaut into a rare stint in front of the cameras, his only performance in a Hollywood movie. Truffaut is quite wonderful as Claude Lacombe, suitably impenetrable and imbued with intelligent authority.
It is appropriate that Lacombe’s English is as flaky as it is, this being a film about communication, between human beings of every stripe and beings from across the universe. It also highlights the fact that this is such an intensely visual film. Spielberg is an undisputed master of visual storytelling and Close Encounters is a greatest hits album of some of the most iconic moments in cinema. The shot of little Carey Guffey stood in the doorway gazing out into a fiery orange lightshow is one that Spielberg himself has cited as an image that defines his life and career.
Most filmmakers would saw off a foot to capture any one of the stunning images from this film. The shadow of the space-craft gliding over the fields or the bright amber light piercing through the keyhole; the headlights in Neary’s rear window that slowly rise up into the air. The cargo ship stranded in the desert; the screen suddenly filled with fingers pointing up into the sky. Then there’s the unforgettable moment when Carey Guffey’s face breaks out into a delightful smile as he spies an off-screen alien – five seconds that crystallised Spielberg’s reputation as a great children’s director.
There can’t be many scenes in cinema history with the power to shrink the viewer into their seat like the moment when the Mothership arrives, announced first by separate technicolor sections, each big enough to block out the stars, until finally the whole gargantuan city-sized ship is revealed in its entirety. When it starts to turn around in front of Devil’s Tower, the only available reaction is a long gasp of reverent awe. My daughter said that it was the best CGI she’d ever seen. The concept of miniatures was duly explained and she is now a Donald Trumbull aficionado.
Trumbull’s incalculable contribution to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s special effects in 1968 helped Kubrick’s masterpiece to become seen as the father of modern science-fiction cinema. As extraordinary and vital as 2001 was, its devotees were largely cineastes and regular LSD enthusiasts. Close Encounters took that eye-widening spectacle and, without diminishing the levels of intelligence, grounded it in a recognisable middle America that made it identifiable to millions.
These were the streets and houses where Spielberg came of age and the scenes inside the chaotic Neary household throb with noisy natural authenticity. It’s also the stage for the heartbreaking later scenes, post-contact, when Roy is consumed utterly with his mysterious obsession and his family fears he is suffering a traumatic breakdown. “I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”
If scenes like this (and later, when the increasingly erratic Roy starts to push the family garden piecemeal in through the kitchen window) seem uncomfortable to watch in 2017, it’s because such raw familial intimacy and dysfunction rarely appear in modern Hollywood blockbusters, but this was Spielberg exorcising his own very personal demons. The child of divorce, he bravely disinterred his painful past and channelled it into the passages of Roy’s meltdown.
It’s possible to imagine Spielberg identifying with Roy’s plight. Here he was, a quietly respected young movie director, who had suddenly been thrust front-and-centre into a worldwide phenomenon and hailed as a modern genius, with an entire movie-going planet desperate and eager to see what he did next. When Roy finally gets to encounter the aliens, his response, “I just want to know that it’s really happening,” suggests relief, more than anything else, that he hasn’t simply been going mad, that his instincts were right. “This means something. This is important.”
Spielberg the director (and writer for the last time until AI: Artificial Intelligence) was right. This was important. A miraculously balanced blend of the scientific and the spiritual, the possible and the impossible; cold reasonable detachment meets the gut-twisting agony of a mind on the verge of madness.
Viewed now within the body of Spielberg’s work, it shows a bravery, or possibly a pre-fatherhood callousness that is rarely found outside his 1970s films. He has gone on to state that if he made it today, he wouldn’t have let Roy abandon his family and leave in the ship in the end (similarly, I have often wondered whether post-dad Spielberg would have been able to kill off poor young Alex Kintner so gruesomely in Jaws). I suspect that he might not have allowed Roy’s wife (Teri Garr) to be portrayed quite so unsympathetically either.
It goes without saying that John Williams’s score is a thing of soaring majesty and dark, brooding menace – featuring of course, one of the most famous five-note musical phrases of all time – and Vilmos Zsigmond’s Academy Award winning photography captured some of the most poetic imagery of the decade. In the end, there is uplift, in every single sense of the word.
Ultimately, in the two-spaceship race of 1977 between Close Encounters and Star Wars, it was Lucas who won the box office gold. It was Star Wars that the studios wanted to see replicated in every sense; in its spirit of child-friendly fantasy adventure, or just plain carbon-copied. It was Star Wars that changed the parameters of what a blockbuster could achieve, a legacy that stretched on through the 80s and 90s all the way to The Last Jedi.
This left Close Encounters as something of a one-off, and it’s right that it remains so (Spielberg wisely chose to ignore his instincts to make Close Encounters of The Fourth Kind). Four decades later, there hasn’t been a film released quite like it since. Trust me, rare indeed is the 40 year old film that can still inspire speechless, breathless wonder in a twelve year old girl who didn’t even cry in Toy Story 3. If you, like her, are watching it for the first time, I can only second the words of Claude Lacombe – “I envy you.”
All-New 4K Restoration Available October 9on 2-Disc Remastered Blu-ray™, 2-Disc 4K Ultra HD™& Limited Edition 3-Disc 4K Ultra HD “Light and Sound” Gift Set
Both Blu-ray & 4K Ultra HD Releases Include All Three Versions of the Film, Plus the Blu-ray & Limited Edition 4K Gift Set include All-New Bonus Material Featuring Interviews with Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams & Denis Villeneuve