Combustible Celluloid
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With: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, François Truffaut, Cary Guffey, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, J. Patrick McNamara, Lance Henriksen
Written by: Steven Spielberg
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 137
Date: 11/15/1977

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch the Skies

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This masterpiece from Steven Spielberg holds up remarkably well. In the fall of 1977, while Star Wars was still playing and going strong, it was released in theaters in a 135-minute version. In 1980, Spielberg released a "Special Edition," which trimmed the movie's mid-section and included some light-show footage of the interior of the alien spaceship. Finally in 1998, Spielberg finalized his director's cut, which runs 137 minutes, and incorporates the best stuff from the two previous versions, minus the light show (a wise choice).

Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrician who spots a UFO one night. Objects in his truck fly around, half of his face is sunburned, and he begins to have visions of a mysterious shape that he can't get out of his head. His wife (Teri Garr) and kids think he's crazy, but another woman, single mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon), also saw them and has the same visions. Her young son Barry (Cary Guffey in a remarkable child performance) seems drawn to the aliens and eventually disappears.

Eventually solving the puzzle, Roy and Jillian hit the road to Devil's Tower in Wyoming, where the military has set up an elaborate set of scares to send people away. A French scientist, Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is in charge, and David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is his interpreter. Mounting a series of obstacles, Roy, Jillian, and one other man (Josef Sommer) begin the climb, leading to an awe-inspiring, breathless finale.

Still in his twenties when he made this, Spielberg's rhythms and images are astoundingly right. Like a born master, he seems to always know just where to put the camera, when to cut, and when to use a music cue. He generates suspense, but does not forget humor, and the pace never lags. One shot sticks with me: as Roy and Jillian make their way toward Devil's Tower, they are forced off-road to avoid military roadblocks, and they bust through several barbed-wire fences. When the Tower comes into view, Spielberg shows the car coming into frame. The car stops as the travelers gaze out the window in wonder. In the next shot, Spielberg will cut to the Tower, but just before he does, we notice a scrap of barbed wire and a fence post resting on the car's hood, adding an extra layer to the shot.

I was also struck at just how much time the story spends trying to keep the heroes away from the landing site. The aliens are not the bad guys here: it's the American military. Apparently, they have decided that only they are worthy to receive the aliens when they land, and that no civilians -- regardless of whether they have been directly invited by the aliens -- can handle it or deserve it. The military cook up a poison gas scare, and even sprinkle dead-looking (but actually unconscious) animals by the roadside to prove it. Tragically, most of the "regular" people chosen to be there don't ever make it while the military folks -- who were not chosen -- get a free ride.

This is again juxtaposed by our first views of the aliens, who appear, as far as we can tell, equal. They don't judge others or try to undermine others, as the humans clearly do. Hence, as hopeful and wide-eyed as this movie is, it also represents some of Spielberg's darkest views of humanity.

Otherwise, the movie is just a pinnacle of excellence, fully capable of lifting up an audience and carrying it along in every instance. (For example, screaming at Roy to look at the TV! Just turn your head a little!) It can give you goosebumps as easily as an actor can read dialogue. The John Williams music is extraordinary, especially the memorable five-note greeting, the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond -- the movie's only Oscar winner -- is the very definition of "luminous."

I find that Francois Truffaut, a great filmmaker himself, is today largely forgotten in this country, except for his role in this. So it's useful for newcomers to note that, if Spielberg paid homage to this man, then maybe it's worth seeking out his films.

The only thing slightly off about this whole movie is the screenplay credit, which Spielberg takes all to himself, even though he has few other writing credits. It was certainly his original idea, but many people, including Paul Schrader and Matthew Robins, worked on the script. It's one of those Hollywood soup things that will probably never be worked out. But regardless of who wrote what, it all fell into place in a way that's most satisfying, and probably even timeless.

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