Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 18 min.

Release Date: December 14th, 1977 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, J. Patrick McNamara, Cary Guffey

 


 

I

n the Sonora Desert in Mexico, with wind and dust blowing strong enough to knock people down, a team of French scientists meet up with an American group, anxious to investigate a fleet of military planes. Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) leads the examination of Flight #19, a series of crafts used in a training mission that was reported missing since 1945. Yet here they are, in excellent condition, abandoned in the middle of the desert. An American cartographer, working on the project from the beginning, is particularly surprised and confused. How could these machines have resurfaced after so much time?

Meanwhile, Air Traffic Control at the Indianapolis Center works to identify an unknown object flying in the area. It’s reported to be quite brilliant, with landing lights far brighter than any normal plane. When the luminous craft nearly collides with another vessel, the center struggles with the notion of filing an official report for a U.F.O. But no one is entirely certain that they want to mess with the inexplicable incident.

In nearby Muncie, Indiana, little Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) is awoken at night to some strange nocturnal events in his bedroom. Toys begin moving on their own, music plays, the refrigerator spews food all over the floor, and the pet door ferociously flaps open. His mother (Melinda Dillon) is in for quite a shock when the tiny boy wanders out into the neighboring woods, laughing and pointing at strange lights in the sky.

And across town, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) contends with his overbearing family, including wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and three young children, who collectively create a ruckus, yelling and arguing and smashing things in their cluttered house. When electricity is lost all over the city, Roy, who works for the Power & Water Department, drives out toward the the railroad to poke around. After witnessing odd glitches and malfunctions in his truck, Neary, along with a smattering of concerned citizens and police officers, spy four glowing, spaceship-like machines whooshing through the sky. Hysterical, Roy rushes home to collect his family, at 4:00 AM, much to their chagrin. When they race back to the spot of the sighting, there is, of course, nothing to be found.

Curious things happen right from the start, but they’re somewhat lackluster and uninspired. In a most unexpected deviation from the standard, evil alien invader pictures, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” isn’t about a hostile extraterrestrial takeover. This isn’t immediately apparent, however, especially as writer/director Steven Spielberg takes his time depicting otherworldly visitations throughout several spots across the globe (including Mongolia and Northern India). Rather than focusing on just one man’s experiences, Spielberg hopes to make his sci-fi epic an international affair. The result, however, is discouraging pacing issues.

Roy is at the center of the ordeal, but his troublesome family life (or his failures as a father and husband) and the impact of his involvement with the aliens are frequently brushed aside for the implications of the Earth’s population scrambling to make sense of the strange occurrences. With the government getting into the mix, the film takes a scientific, methodical approach to researching a U.F.O. encounter, which makes the plot move even slower than if it relied solely on Roy to figure out arcane communications. The picture does blend major sci-fi themes, drama, mystery, intermediate adventure, light humor, lighter romance, and moderate thrills, serving very much as practice for Spielberg’s next two projects (the masterpieces “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”), which would combine those storytelling embellishments with far greater care. Here, the bureaucratic fuss during the various explorations, deductions, and abductions stymies the fun of good old-fashioned innocents combating or engaging with unknown forces. There’s simply not enough alien participation to generate a true sense of wonder (and even when they do show up in numbers, they dawdle before fully revealing themselves). The human leads are simply too unenjoyable.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a notable effort with decent production values, but the end result is little more than a generic sci-fi episode, constructed and designed with the enthusiasm and scope of something better suited for television. Historically, it certainly had a lot to go up against, as its debut late in 1977 was still feeling the competition from “Star Wars” earlier in the year (though it would still garner 9 Academy Award nominations and a slew of other accolades). Despite the work often being cited as one of the most influential and enduring examples of dramatic science-fiction (or a somewhat more reality-based approach to such out-of-this-world concepts), as well as boasting an unforgettable finale, it simply doesn’t move swiftly enough to maintain excitement or interest. It consistently struggles to create awe.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10