Movie Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
1975’s Jaws established Steven Spielberg, and this movie cemented him as a big time director to be reckoned with. It’s not as good as Jaws, of course, and removed from it now by over 40 years, people sort of seem to forget about it. Even ten years ago, this movie’s reputation seemed to be a lot better than it is now.
I respect this movie a lot, though. It’s science fiction spectacle that has some big time special effects, sure, but isn’t driven by action. Instead, it’s driven by wonder, which is perhaps the emotion that Steven Spielberg is most associated with. look at the first time everyone sees a brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park, for instance. That’s like every scene of this movie.
It seems to me that 2001: A Space Odyssey was a major influence on this movie, and it’s definitely not as good as that (what science fiction film is?), but it still largely works. It has compelling and likable characters and some good performances that help us arrive at the emotions that Spielberg wants us to.
Richard Dreyfuss’s performance as Roy Neary, a man who slowly becomes obsessed with UFOs, is truly remarkable. Apparently, Spielberg looked at a bunch of other great actors for the role (Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, etc.), and while they’re all amazing, I can’t imagine them doing this role as well.
Melinda Dillon (A Christmas Story) plays a mother that develops a similar obsession, and she’s similarly great. Maybe even better.
Honestly, the biggest problem with this movie is the ending. First off, the ending is very memorable, but it’s also incredibly problematic. Spoilers ahead.
Communication with the UFO through music is really interesting, and potentially realistic, and John Williams of course pulls it off.
And we see that the aliens didn’t mean us any harm, which is nice to see. With Spielberg having directed both this and E.T., it’s easy to forget that this was a fairly revolutionary idea at the time. Going back to the ’50s, aliens were almost always hostile, with the big exception being The Day the Earth Stood Still. But even Klaatu and Gort exercised force to scare the hell out of people. I mean, I guess these aliens abduct a kid, sure.
But Roy chooses to leave with the aliens, and this never sat right with me. He has a family, that he’s just abandoning. Spielberg himself has even commented on this, and said that he never could have made this movie after he had kids, because now he understands what Neary is leaving behind. So I’d call it a memorable ending, but it doesn’t quite sit right with me.