Review: From the archives: Saucer sorcery in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’


“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is being rereleased in a digitally remastered 4K edition of the director’s cut. This review was originally published Nov. 18, 1977. Charles Champlin was a former Times’ arts editor, film critic and columnist.

Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is assured the annual Godot Award as the most-awaited move of the year. The subject matter and the security blanket Spielberg wrapped around it have made millions eager for a peek and now, by damn, the full look is at hand.

And “Close Encounters” proves to be a magic act with dramatic interludes. The interludes range downward from so-so (the movie is oddly like “Jaws” in that way), but the magic is so thrilling that nothing else matters much.


The special effects conceived by Spielberg and executed by Douglas Trumbull and a staff that seems to number in the hundreds are dazzling and wondrous. That’s not surprising: the surprise is that “Close Encounters” is so well leavened with humor.

Despite its cost (said to have been $19 million ultimately, with additional millions for advertising and promotion) and despite its scope “Close Encounters” stays light on its legs, mystical and reverential but not solemn. It is a warm celebration, positive and pleasurable. The humor is folksy and slapstick rather than cerebral, as if to confirm that our encounter is with a populist vehicle.

The effects resemble those in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars.” You can’t, after all, make westerns without horses, or science fantasy without sky and stars and brilliant ships sketched in an approaching tomorrow.

But “Close Encounters” is not Stanley Kubrick’s film, with its ecstatic and incomprehensible mysteries of infinite time and space, and not George Lucas’, with its primal wars of good and evil fought in some futuristic past.

Spielberg’s movie says that once upon the present time the visitors from an unidentified elsewhere arrived upon earth and manifested themselves, raising hell with the electrical gadgetry and assorted souls in and about Muncie, Ind.

The earth-shaking reverberations caused by the spacecraft’s energy system (which makes model trains and vacuum cleaners roar alive unbidden but amusingly) are made to seem more startling than terrifying. It seems significant that the aliens are presumed to be friendly rather than hostile — as if to say that intelligent life elsewhere is surely too intelligent to go in for the kind of bloodletting that has characterized Earth from the start.


Spielberg symbolizes this trust in the slight and wide-eyed person of a child (Cary Guffey), who could not be more pleased, amidst the incandescence and the roaring, than if a circus parade had passed in front of his house. It is also as if the communication between Them (whoever they may be) and us is innocent and loving.

Despite the best efforts of the Air Force (lampooned in the film) to shoot them down, the UFOs cannot be permanently disproved and the popular imagination stays tantalizingly alive. Spielberg’s fantasy is a widely appealing game of What If, played without the menace of the bug-eyed monsters and galactic villains that gave Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers such trouble.

The excitements begin amidst blowing dust in Mexico, where in a remote desert some fighter planes missing since World War II suddenly reappear, engines ready to go at the touch of a switch.

Francois Truffaut as an excitable scientist seems to know what it may mean, but we still don’t. Then things go bang in the Indiana night: a boy’s electric toys, all the appliances, and manifestations, and bright lights and a shaking, rattling and rolling as before the doom.

Melinda Dillon is startled, partly by her son’s delight at what should be so scary. Teri Garr is alarmed, and her husband (Richard Dreyfuss), a power company worker, has to leave her and try to discover what has blacked out half the state.

His van shakes half to pieces and goes dead, and mail boxes do a shimmy and there are fireballs arcing across the sky.

Dreyfuss and Dillon and a handful of others have been communicated with; they feel it but don’t really know it. Except that there is this vision, a dream half-remembered, and a sawed off mountain.

The Spielberg of “Jaws” continues to be a director (and now a writer) of effects rather than characters or relationships. When the script lets Trumbull and his associate Merlins and a platoon of the world’s best cinematographers (Vilmos Zsigmond, principally, and Billy Fraker, Douglas Slocombe, John Alonzo and Lazlo Kovacs), strut their stuff and the Superdome-sized saucers wheel and hover and turn, it is zowie time at the Bijou.

Then again, a whole sequence in which Dreyfuss builds his dream peak in the living room from mud and shrubbery is so forced and silly it nearly deranges all the rest of the movie. Dillon as another true believer has to cry a lot and Teri Garr has to disbelieve but trust a lot, up to the uprooting of the shrubs.

Although the script has fun with the pish-tushing bureaucracies, it does little to give any real credibility to the reactions, governmental, journalistic or even personal, to the goings-on. A couple of fishermen in Mississippi (a famous early UFO report) is one thing; half a state and unimpeachable witnesses is quite another.

The mystical pull on Dreyfuss and the others never becomes quite the parable it was presumably intended to be. Still, the movie builds toward a time of grandeur that suggests either the opening of the Olympics or Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Square, and even if Spielberg milks it entirely too long, it is still affecting and uplifting.

John Williams’ music is crucial, and once again he seems to work as effectively when big things are required as anyone now writing. There is a good deal of sustained and tremulous tone — the quivering hum we have come to accept as the sound wave of the future, here bridging into the majesty of Handel’s Messiah Revisited (not literally, of course). It is powerful and hugely contributory.

In terms of bringing off its intentions, “Close Encounters” ranks somewhat lower on a scale of 10 than “2001” or “Star Wars.” But it is different from either and may be onto a more popularly intriguing theme: not Will we find them, but Will they find us?

A longer synopsis would trim the surprises. The mysteries and miracles visited upon Muncie are bewitching and at its most effective, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is marvelously clever. Since reviews are now said to be affecting stock prices, my private Dow-Jones closing might be that I wouldn’t know whether to buy, but I wouldn’t sell.


‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977)

Rating: PG

Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes

Playing: In general release

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