Director: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon and François Truffaut.
Runtime: 131 minutes
Over the course of his illustrious career, Steven Spielberg has written, directed and produced some of cinema’s most enduring films and has created countless iconic shots and scenes, but back in 1977 he was only just off the back of directing his first blockbuster hit, Jaws (1975). Having gone beneath the waves for his shark horror, he next cast his eyes to the sky with a story about the first contact with Alien life in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Spielberg’s fascination with Space and science fiction as a whole, has been a continued source of creativity throughout his career both in directing and producing. The possibilities that the sci-fi genre holds for a creative mind and the thrill of adventure it throws up have always been appealing to Spielberg. Close Encounters is where this fascination met the big screen. Coincidentally, this was also the same year that his good friend George Lucas first took audiences to a “galaxy far, far away” in Star Wars.
Close Encounters – despite being only his second big release – is already full of Spielberg’s signature style and filming techniques. His ability to introduce his characters and set ups with clever reveals and intelligent framing has always been an excellent hook to draws audiences into the action.
His use of slow, gradual reveals of the threat or the mystery in his films is also a technique that builds tension based upon a growing sense of anticipation to see the hitherto unseen. It’s a technique more synonymous with Horror cinema – something he did with perfect execution in Jaws – where not seeing the monster allows an audience’s collective mind to wander until they can’t wait for the big reveal any longer.
Despite knowing what this film is about going in, we don’t see any UFOs until 20 minutes into the film and we don’t see any physical aliens until the finale. Spielberg understands the power of building this anticipation though and he believes in the strength the technique offers to his storytelling methods and shooting style completely. This almost effortless ability to create audience connection is one of many reasons why he’s become one of the biggest names in all of cinema.
The aliens may only briefly appear, but they remain a constant ominous presence throughout the film. Through menacing lighting and John Williams’ excellent mood enhancing score the film’s tension and the ambiguity of the aliens’ intentions remain. One scene perfectly embodies this: little Barry’s (Cary Guffey) abduction scene is vintage Spielberg; tense, frightening, perfectly paced, brilliantly scored and atmospherically lit all without once showing the alien abductors.
As ever with a Spielberg film, there has to be a mention of John Williams’ brilliant score. However, in a film where aliens and humans communicate through tonality and music, it’s actually a more unassuming score than his usual style. Unlike his scores for films like Star Wars, where the classical accompaniment is big and bold, here it takes much more of a backseat, with a greater subtlety designed to compliment the drama.
But in it’s big, beautiful finale, Williams is given a showcase for his big orchestral piece and in so doing, he produces one of his most iconic pieces of cinematic music (which is saying something). Much as the film builds slowly to its final crescendo, so to does Williams’ excellent score.
This was also a film that furthered the credentials of leading man Richard Dreyfuss. Having worked with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola on American Graffiti (1973), then Spielberg’s breakout hit Jaws, this was further evidence that he could be an engaging and slightly unorthodox leading screen presence.
As Roy Neary, his descent into obsessive madness following his first close encounter, is played with a brilliant blend of mania, frenetic comedy and personal tragedy as he eventually alienates and drives away his family. The audience are able to connect with him straight away and Dreyfuss is such a natural everyman that it’s difficult not to form that bond with him and root for his cause.
The film was nominated for a multitude of awards but ultimately picked up very few, coming in the year that Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall was the awards darling. Its cultural significance though, has never been lost and its standing in cinematic history has only grown since its release. It was one of only 7 films released that year that has been selected to be housed in the National Film Preservation Board’s (NFPB) ‘National Film Registry’ (NFR) for its “cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.” If that’s not a ringing endorsement for both this film and Steven Spielberg’s directing skills then I don’t know what is.