BY RYAN MACKETT
WHEN Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in theatres in 1977, it was only Steven Spielberg’s third theatrical feature. Since then, Spielberg has directed around 58 movies, TV episodes and shorts, and has produced over 180 feature films. Generally speaking, Spielberg at his worst is still better than most everyone else at their best. Yet Close Encounters remains an exemplary piece of filmmaking that showcases all of the skills and abilities that Spielberg as a director would come to be known for the rest of his career (especially his ability to elicit incredible performances from extremely young actors and his massive, creative imagination as a visual storyteller). I was able to see a 40th anniversary screening of the Director’s Cut version of the film, digitally remastered in 4K. Considering the technological limitations of the time, the film has aged relatively well.
While the film is widely considered a sci-fi classic, Spielberg himself does not consider the film to be science fiction. As a line of dialogue in the film explains, it is about ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances. A prologue documentary short that appeared before the screening included quotes from directors J.J. Abrams and Denis Villeneuve, as well as Spielberg himself, and it was interesting to hear their perspectives.
At its heart, the film is actually a family drama. Here, we see Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary become obsessed with discovering the secret behind The Devil’s Tower after a close encounter with an alien UFO. Through the process of his discovery, and at the height of his mania, audiences witness the drastic consequences his actions have on his family.
What has also struck me as interesting is that the film is at times tense and emotional, and sometimes terrifying, while also being hopeful and imaginative. It is one of the rare alien movies that feature benevolent creatures. The movie is also very non-violent. While sequences featuring a chase up a mountain and military helicopters is exciting, this film is also a rare example of a film that does not rely whatsoever on violence to tell its story.
I’ve always been mesmerized by the film’s third act. The movie builds to one of the most visually and aurally stimulating climactic sequences that rivals most contemporary CGI-fests, thanks to incredible use of light, colour and sound. Practical effects, scale miniatures and models, creative lighting and John Williams’ score all weave together in an awe-inspiring way that treats audiences to a finale that still thrills after all these years.
This film is a cinematic classic, one of Spielberg’s greats and remains one of my favourites. I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen if you get the chance. Otherwise it is widely available on Blu-ray, DVD and various streaming and on-demand formats. Highly recommended.
Ryan Mackett is an artist and film enthusiast who resides in Thunder Bay. Email questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.