In 1975, Steven Spielberg released “Jaws”. A legendary motion picture. Based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, the film was a phenomenal success, shattering box office records and literally giving birth to the concept of the “Summer Blockbuster”. It became the highest grossing movie of all time.
So in 1976, Steven Spielberg could do what ever the %#$& he wanted. LOL
The movie he chose to make? A picture that he had already been working on that, until “Jaws”, he had been having trouble finding financial backing for.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
Spielberg wrote “Close Encounters”.
With so many “written and directed by” credits in the movieverse today, that probably doesn’t come as a big shock, but when you look at the man’s filmography, he has surprisingly few writing credits on his films – and certainly fewer than you’d expect on his “Great” movies. While I’m certain he has always had complete choice on what to bring to the screen, and probably contributes to scripts more than he takes credit for, it’s nonetheless surprising that Spielberg has no writing credits on IMDb for any of the following great films: “Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T.”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Schindler’s List”.
So it’s a unique film in the Director’s canon, and a personal one for him as well.
He was inspired to address the subject from an early age, after watching a meteor shower with his father when he was young. After rejecting drafts from other writers that didn’t convey the proper tone he was looking for, he set out to write the screenplay himself, something which would adequately express the feeling of hope and wonder of benign visitation. Something that conveyed the feelings of “When You Wish Upon a Star”, commingled with the government conspiracy aspect that was inescapable in the then current post-Watergate American climate.
He was also an avid believer in UFOs.
On the 30th Anniversary Blu Ray, Spielberg says, “I didn’t believe it was science fiction. I didn’t coin this, but I, I was liberally saying, this isn’t science fiction. This is science speculation. Because I had a real deep-rooted belief that we had been visited, and in this century. I was a real sort of a UFO devotee in the 1970s and was really into the UFO phenomenon from everything I was reading. So it was something for me that was science.”
For the rest of the world, however, the concept of “We Come In Peace” was still new. Until “Close Encounters” (and even now, predominantly), aliens from outer space came to Earth to kick our ass, not to teach us sign language and music.
Thankfully, Spielberg doesn’t shortchange that. If anything, he pays it its full and just due. Encountering Unidentified Flying Objects, and especially having encounters of the “Third Kind” (actually meeting the aliens), could be amazing, extraordinary, wondrous… yes. But you’re probably more than likely to crap yourself. And the rest of the world would consider you a nutbag when you tried to convey your experiences to them.
It would take the optimism and unfettered curiosity of a child to wholeheartedly embrace such a contact, and that was what Spielberg was attempting to present with the storyline of young Barry, the boy who enthusiastically rushes to see and watch and meet the alien visitors. Whereas adults would be too frightened to open the door and see what was there… even though what was there might be completely benevolent and full of wonder and hope… a child wouldn’t hesitate. The innate trust, the instinctive joy, the lack of fear. Only a child could possess that.
“…the image that always comes to mind is when the little boy opens the door, and all that orange, yellow light poured across him. When I designed that shot, and when I wrote the script, for me, that was very symbolic of what only a child can do, is to trust the light” – Steven Spielberg
The adults of the world would take things a little differently of course. Barry’s mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon), is frantic upon losing him, disconsolate… where could you possibly turn to? The Government simultaneously attempts to investigate AND cover things up. And then there’s Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary.
Who loses his mind.
The families in Spielberg’s movies were all consistently authentic, and the Nearys were no exception. They lived in a messy house, with a trio of kids. It seemed a very “harried” home, but full of love nonetheless. Once the “Close Encounters” begin, however, Roy’s wife (played by Terri Garr) cannot come to grips with what he’s going through.
And certainly, Roy doesn’t make it easy on her. Keeping odd hours, showing up with half a sunburn, telling tales of seeing UFOs, dragging the family out of the house at night, and eventually going off the deep end. He begins to lose focus and become obsessed with the shape of (unbeknownst to him) Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. He sculpts it into his shaving cream, his mashed potatoes, and eventually in scale in his living room.
It’s too much for the family to take. Very believably, an encounter with a UFO splits a family apart.
Of course, the film is building to a grand finale of epic proportions; The climactic, 25 minute long Devil’s Tower sequence where Roy, Jillian, and a platoon of government agents and scientific researchers all experience a visit from a small armada of spacecraft.
In order to film the “Football Stadium” scenes, the production team had difficulties finding an indoor location large enough to suit their needs. Eventually, a set had to be constructed inside a massive hangar at a former Air Force Base. During WWII, the site was used to modify and repair B-29 Superfortresses, but it still wasn’t big enough for the production’s needs. Thankfully, the doors to the hangar could be opened and the film crew could build extensions in order to fit the needs of the massive set.
In order to create the incredible spacecraft effects, Spielberg obtained a list of the people who worked on “2001: A Space Odyssey” due to that film’s incredible visual effects. He was only able to secure the assistance of one member of that production (Doug Trumbull), but nonetheless, it’s a lineage I found fascinating.
The film is obviously praiseworthy for its incredible practical effects – its use of matte paintings and model work. But it was actually a forerunner in many of the technologies used today. ”Close Encounters” marked the very first CGI effects test in movie history. Colin Cantwell created a sequence with 3 lighted flying disks flying across a football stadium. It wasn’t up to motion picture release standards, and wouldn’t have been cost-effective to do the entire movie in that fashion at that time, but it is of note historically.
The movie was also the first ever to use a digital recording system. Prior to this film, in composite shots, the camera filming the “live action” scenes would have to be held stationary so that eventually the effects images could be overlaid. For “Close Encounters”, however, the camera’s movements during live action filming were recorded on cassette tape via computer, so that later, during model/miniature filming, the camera motion could be replicated. This allowed for a new level of dynamic camera work during special effects laden sequences.
In my opinion, the visual effects of “Close Encounters” hold up incredibly well to this day.
During the scene, the extraterrestrials communicate with us via music and light. Spielberg envisioned that an alien race with the technological capability for space flight would certainly understand mathematics, and music was simply an audible method of communicating mathematically. Adding lights and colors to correspond with the notes gave the communication a visual component, as well.
He asked composer John Williams to provide him five notes for the aliens “calling card”. He felt that the musical phrase needed to be short enough not to be considered be a song or a true melody, but long enough not to seem like a random fragment. Williams estimates he went over about 300 five note combinations with Spielberg before the two of them settled on the tones that would become a part of film history. The legendary five note pattern has become synonymous with the film. It runs through the lifeblood of “Close Encounters”… from being chanted in India, to being tinked out by Barry on his xylophone, to finally, being beeped out and blared back in the musical exchange between the mother ship and the research team.
It opens a mind-blowing sequence full of incredible rapid-fire music, flashing, colored lights, and awe-struck observers. An unbelievable, unforgettable, interstellar rock concert at Devil’s Tower.
At the time of its release, Spielberg had wanted another six months to work on the film in post production… working the editing and effects shots even further. But Columbia Pictures was facing bankruptcy and couldn’t give him the extra time he was requesting. They literally needed the film to perform well in order to stave off the financial collapse of their company. Their hopes were answered. Close Encounters was a huge box office success, taking in $116 million domestically and another $172 million overseas, for a total worldwide gross of $288 million. That’s a great a take today, nevermind in 1976.
It became the highest grossing film in Columbia Pictures’ history at the time.
Of course, it was also well received – and is well-remembered - critically. “Close Encounters” was nominated for nine Oscars. Though it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor, it didn’t win in any of the “major” categories. It did bring home an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and earned a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing. It originally made AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies at #64, (but didn’t make the tenth anniversary edition – don’t get me started). The movie has been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress (2007).
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is the living embodiment of the phrase “Movie Magic”.
It’s a story of hope and wonder and imagination, yet grounded in believability and populated with fully fleshed out characters. It takes an event that could be seen as very improbable to actually occur, and makes it seem so plausible and realistic that it might as well be rooted in fact. It stirs the imagination, not just as you’re watching the movie, but after, as you look to the skies.
It will take you away, as well.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”