On September 1, 2017, a new 4K release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind will be released in theatres. I doubt I will get to see it myself, but if that's possible I will do it in a heartbeat.
After the blockbuster Jaws, Steven Spielberg decided to make a film like none other. This was the same year Star Wars came out and science fiction was not a respected genre in any of its incarnations, be that literature or cinema. While Star Wars was a basically a fantasy film with Sci-Fi elements, Close Encounters is a much more serious venture. It follows a typical everyman, like many of Spielberg’s films, as he comes to grip with the fact he has been chosen, apparently by aliens for some unknown purpose. Richard Dreyfuss gives and amazing, textured performance (as does the rest of the cast including Teri Garr, Melinda Dillion, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen and famed French director François Truffaut).
Everything about the 20 million dollar production puts today’s 200 million dollar films to shame in many, many ways. The special effects by the legendary Douglas Trumball are practically flawless and look as good today as they did then. I recently looked at some of Trumball’s experiments, outtakes of effects that he felt did not work, and even they are amazing and would look fantastic in any modern production. The music by John Williams is iconic in a way that surpasses maybe even his score for Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back in that music itself is a crucial part of the plot and if it didn’t work, the film might have failed as well.
Technical stuff aside, it’s the story telling that sets this movie head and shoulders above most others and makes it a classic. It’s not a fast cut, non-stop action film, it’s a well-paced character piece of people dealing with extraordinary events. A lot of detail both visually and in the dialogue gives even minor characters intriguing personalities. A good example is the poor guy hired to play the musical instrument used to communicate with the aliens. His reactions alone tell you he had no idea what he was getting into when he took the job and he struggles through fear and awe as he struggles to keep up with a giant spaceship which has somehow ended up in a duet with him at a secret base at Devil’s Tower monument. There could be a film about what happens to him alone after the events of this film.
As only his third real full-length film, Spielberg established what would be become some common tropes in his work with the lighting, plot progression and effects integration while telling a simple, personal story. As well worn as some of them are now, watching this film they all seem new and fresh.
While not exactly hard science fiction, it takes its subject matter seriously and was meticulously researched to be true to what were, frankly, nutty stories about flying saucers. It was too successful, maybe. As The Exorcist brought an obscure Catholic ritual into the public eye and suddenly, people were getting possessed by demons all over the place and still are to this very day. Close Encounters did the same thing for UFO enthusiasts and after its release everyone, including President Jimmy Carter had some sort of « encounter » to talk about.
Its effect in cinema was also quite impressive, but not as impressive as George Lucas’s space opera as this film was not a vehicle for sequels or toys but a stand-alone story that one would be hard pressed to market or merchandise for decades after its release. It was also a hard film to rip off, though believe me, many studios certainly did. As a result, I would say not too many people in their 20s today have actually seen the film, even though they certainly know a lot about it. Those five famous notes alone are enough to secure it the public conscience.
Maybe the coming 4K version will bring this classic back into the limelight where it belongs alongside Star Wars, Gone with the Wind and other iconic, unforgettable films. It might at least remind the movie going public of what a inspirational and well made film it is.