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CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND(director/writer: Steven Spielberg; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Michael Kahn; music: John Williams; cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), Francois Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin), Roberts Blossom (Farmer), Lance Henriksen (Robert), George DiCenzo (Major Benchley); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Julia Phillips/Michael Phillips; Columbia Tristar; 1977)
“It plays out as a film buff’s idea of what a UFO sighting would be like if it could be a cross between a Disney theme park and a 1970s light show at a disco.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The big-budget follow-up to the successful Jaws (1975), which became the number one box office hit of all-time, by Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park”/”War of the Worlds”/”E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”), is this spectacular UFO adventure drama (it was also destined for a great box office). It borrows its narrative from many of those cheapie 1950 sci-fi films and combines it with the inference, one that should please conspiracy theorists and listeners of Art Bell, that the US government has been operating a cover-up of UFOs for a long time. What emerges is man-kind’s first contact with aliens at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, and it’s nothing but a joyous occasion: dig those dancing UFOs who are all aglow over an airfield! It’s pie-eyed kid stuff for both adults and children, that looks so great as photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond. He beautifully captures the night sky that’s filled with blinking lights and brilliantly colored shapes, as the then under thirty Spielberg has his alter ego childlike protagonist, played by Richard Dreyfuss, all wide-eyed and agog at how awesome are the brightly lit saucers.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is a regular guy power lineman in Muncie, Indiana, who has a series of close encounters with UFOs in the film’s earliest scenes when called out at night on an emergency (including an unexplained sunburn on half his face). Choked up with unbelievable emotion at what he just witnessed, his not very understanding dullish wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) becomes alienated from him over his increasing obsession with the sighting and splits with the three spoiled kiddies. Roy is willing to give up his job and family as he returns to the desolate country road and teams up with Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a widow who has also seen the UFOs and is looking for her missing son Barry (Cary Guffey). The third key figure in this tale is Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut, acclaimed French director but a rather stiff actor), who is a French scientist (a Jacques Vallee-style ufologist) leading an international investigation of UFOs.

These three diverse individuals–Neary, Guiler and Lacombe–are drawn to the site in Wyoming where the aliens make a splashy landing in their musical mothership (shot in a dirigible hangar in Mobile, Alabama, which was six times the size of a normal Hollywood sound stage); the last thirty-eight minutes is a brilliant Hollywood special effects show (orchestrated by Douglas Trumbull) reflecting on the mysterious nature of UFOs. It’s well-crafted, well-grounded in Ray Bradbury-like visualizations and entertaining but of questionable worth as science (though it was inspired by The UFO Experience by Dr. J. Allen Hynek who serves as the film’s technical adviser). Nevertheless, it never sinks to a callow smugness because of its healthy mix of extraterrestrial action, everyday sightings, humor and an ability to keep things light; it plays out as a film buff’s idea of what a UFO sighting would be like if it could be a cross between a Disney theme park and a 1970s light show at a disco.

In 1980, a “Special Edition” was released because the fussy Spielberg was displeased with a few awkward scenes. He also added some scenes inside the alien spaceship.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”