1977 Steven Spielberg film starring Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, a regular American Joe who becomes driven to find the meaning behind recurring visions he has after a close encounter with an alien spacecraft.

The Good:
communicating with synthesizers
late seventies special effects
creepy aliens
even creepier backwoods folk watching for U.F.O.'s

The Bad:
also stars McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Baskin-Robbins.
"When You Wish Upon A Star"

American Egotistical Bullshit Rating: mild to none
- acknowledged other countries
- a main character spoke mostly French
- decision-makers were UN rather than US
but
- the aliens landed in the States
- the aliens were greeted by a team of mostly Americans
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - 1977
IMDB genre keywords: Drama/Sci-Fi, and also, confusingly, "air-traffic-controller", "clothes-on-shower", and "helicopter", amongst others.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Screenplay by Spielberg, although the IMDB lists 4 uncredited writers as well.
Starring Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, Fran├žois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, Melinda Dillon as Jillian Guiler, and Teri Garr as Ronnie Neary.
Music by John Williams - he gets a special mention because music plays such an important part in this film.


(Lacombe asks an elderly Mexican witness what he saw last night. The man's face is sunburned, and he is crying tears of joy.)
Old Man: El sol salio anoche y me canto!
Translator: He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.

Plot:

After several planes missing since 1945 suddenly appear undamaged in the desert, there is a sudden upsurge in the number of UFO sightings. When Roy Neary has his own close encounter, he becomes increasingly obsessed with them. He, and other people, begin having visions that lead them to a strange place in the middle of nowhere, and they are all convinced that something major is about to happen...


Why You Should Watch/Rent/Buy This:

Air Traffic Controller: TWA 517, do you want to report a UFO? Over.
There is no answer.
Air Traffic Controller: TWA 517, do you want to report a UFO? Over.
Pilot: Negative. We don't want to report.
Air Traffic Controller: Aireast 31, do you wish to report a UFO? Over.
Pilot: Negative. We don't want to report one of those either.
Air Traffic Controller: Aireast 31, do you wish to file a report of any kind to us?
Pilot: I wouldn't know what kind of report to file, Center.

When I was a kid, I thought this film was the most wonderful thing ever created. Funny, you stick most kids in front of it now, they'll be bored shitless. Where are the big dinosaurs, the explosions, the CGI? And yes, Spielberg is partly responsible for this, making his films bigger and brasher, turning kids away from his earlier, more thoughtful work. This is an incredibly personal, beautiful piece of cinema, made before summer movies got lazy, before blockbusters forgot how to entertain people.

But that doesn't matter. I don't care if kids don't like this. I love it. I love it the same way I loved it back then. It's magical, joyful, scary, and fascinating. In this world, lights are about a thousand watts brighter than they should be, cars are huge, chromed monstrosities, America is full of large, suburban houses with mailboxes and huge expanses of desert and oddly shaped mountains. The government really are trying to cover things up, people really do vanish without trace, and UFOs really do exist.

From the spooky opening in the desert, with the ghostly planes looming up through the sandstorm, right through to the amazing Devil's Tower National Monument finale, this just feels right. Truffaut's optimistic character just wants to make friends with whatever is out there. Neary is slowly losing his mind, trying to understand the message the aliens have placed in his head. The scene in India where thousands of hands point straight up into the air always makes me tingle, as does the moment when the mothership slowly cruises over the top of the mountain. And it's not all joy and wonder, don't forget - Neary pretty much goes mad and drives his family away. A single mother has her child stolen from her. There's some dark, scary stuff between the bright lights.

The idea that the aliens communicate with music and lights is glorious, and I can't think of a similar leap of imagination in any film ever since. There are so many standout scenes I could mention: when the mothership first replies to the scientists, the light and sound display when they finally understand each other, the tense drive through the fields of dead livestock, the toys suddenly coming to life at night, Neary's first, terrifying encounter which begins with the "car headlights" behind him going up instead of around, the even scarier scene where Barry is taken, the family dinner scene, Neary's obsession with the shape he sees in his mind, the revelation as to what the shape actually is, the hilarious moment when Lacombe sees the people escape from the van but says nothing... I could go on, but I'd just be listing every scene in the movie.

You've all probably seen this film fifty million times already, so I should be preaching to the converted. But if, by some incredible chance (it's been on TV, like, twice a week for a hundred years) you haven't seen this film - get thee hence to a DVD player, a widescreen television, and a damn fine surround sound system. Now.


Special Edition/Director's Edition/Monkey Edition:

Laughlin: We didn't choose this place. We didn't choose these people. They were invited!

Jesus H. Christ, this is complicated. Okay, here we go: When Spielberg finished the film, he felt that he hadn't had enough time or money to do it properly. Tough shit SteveO, said the suits, we need to release it. And so it came out in the cinemas, and did spectacularly well (this version to be know from here on as the Original Version, which was 135 minutes long). On the back of that success, Spielberg asked to be allowed to make the finishing touches he needed. The suits said "Sure thing, SteveO, here's $2 million - but we want a scene inside the mothership." Spielberg explained that the ending was better with the mystery of not knowing, that nothing could top the audience's expectation, and that it would merely be a crassly commercial ploy to make more money. The suits said "That's great, SteveO, here's $2 million - but we want a scene inside the mothership." Spielberg sighed, and agreed.

Once the new shooting was finished, 6 minutes of new footage went into the movie. Spielberg also put in 7 minutes of stuff shot during the original shoot, stuff that hadn't been included so far. So why is the Special Edition 3 minutes shorter than the original? Spielberg removed 16 minutes from the original version. 7+6-16 = -3. The main addition being, of course, the mothership interior scene, which consists of Dreyfuss gaping in awe at some wicked cool Douglas Trumbull (2001) visual effects. This either improves or ruins the movie, depending on your point of view. I think it works better without it, preserving the mystery and wonder, but I can happily watch either version. So that's the Special Edition, 132 minutes. With me so far?

When it was shown on television, a new cut was created, combining the original and special editions, making a new 143 minute version. This is usually referred to as the network television version. This was released on laserdisc (with the special edition scenes tagged on at the end of the disc), but not on video.

In 1998 the "Collector's Edition" was released on video. At 137 minutes, this is a re-edited cut of the original version. It didn't have the mothership ending, but it included 5 scenes from the special edition.

In 1999, yet another version was made, for a screening for the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American Films. This Director's Cut or Director's Edition has material from the original and special editions, and the mothership ending is gone. Spielberg stated what changes he wanted made, and this was followed to the letter. He didn't do it himself; he was probably fed up with editing the film at this stage.

* A US TV channel (the Encore! channel) showed both versions separately, before joining them together into a 3 hour version called "The Last Edition". Last edition? Don't you believe it. *

The DVD release has the 137 minute Collector's Edition. It contains 11 deleted scenes (not edited into the movie) which, as far as I can tell, have not appeared in any edit so far.

So which version is the "proper" version? According to Spielberg at the time, the Special Edition was the one to watch. But then the Collector's Edition came out, which seemed to be the definitive version - the AFI cut isn't, as far as I know, available. If you buy the DVD, you'll get the Collector's Edition - extra scenes, original (no mothership interior) ending. But you can probably watch any version and still be perfectly happy, to be honest.

For details of the changed scenes and other differences between all the versions, go here - http://us.imdb.com/AlternateVersions?0075860 - it's where I got most of the version information. But only go there if you really, really want to know. There's a lot of text. Even more than this writeup.


The Music:

Start with the tone.
Up a full tone.
Down a major third.
Now drop an octave.
Up a perfect fifth.

Those famous five notes: G,A,F,F(lower octave),C.

The music is very important in this movie, it's pretty much a major character in itself. Despite this, and the all-pervading five note piece, there isn't that much music in the film, compared to most others. Scenes where UFOs appear reply on natural sounds a lot - crickets, etc - which would suddenly go quiet just before the UFOs appear. The score for Close Encounters is John Williams' favourite of his collaborations with Spielberg.

Williams went through over three hundred different pieces before settling on the final five note piece. Because it ends on an "up" note, the piece is unresolved, curious, a question without an answer, a half-finished sentence. They didn't want to create something that could be used as a jingle, it had to be unique, special. You could argue that they failed, as it is probably one of the most recognisable pieces of music ever created.

Williams: "At one point we called a mathematician friend of Steven's and we asked him, "How many five-note combinations exist within the 12 chromatic scale notes, given no rhythmic variation at all?" And he called back and told us, "I've worked it out - it's about 134,000-odd combinations." Well, we'd got as far as 350, so we thought we'd better stop and pick one of those. So we did that..." **

The 5-note musical greeting is now a part of popular culture. In Moonraker, it was the tune the musical keypad played when the correct code was entered. I've also heard that it is part of the smorgasbord of stuff we've sent out into space as a greeting to whatever is out there, but this may just be wishful thinking.


Most Excellent Movie Trivia:

Lacombe: Mr. Neary, what do you want?
Neary: I just want to know that it's really happening.

From the movie's publicity material:

CLOSE ENCOUNTER
OF THE FIRST KIND
Sighting of a UFO

CLOSE ENCOUNTER
OF THE SECOND KIND
Physical Evidence

CLOSE ENCOUNTER
OF THE THIRD KIND
Contact

WE ARE NOT ALONE

Impressed by the natural performance of Barry (Cary Guffey), the little kid? Spielberg went to all sorts of lengths to get natural, proper reactions from him, as opposed to the precocious "I am a Child Actor!" abominations that we see a lot of the time. Crew members were dressed up in gorilla suits, toys were waved around off camera, and Spielberg himself reportedly hopped about in a rabbit suit for some takes.

The original script was written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). This was, according to all reports, very dark in tone. Spielberg changed it so much, Schrader felt it was completely different to what he'd done, and so he asked to have his name removed from the credits. Spielberg took the writing credit himself, so as not to leave the film without one.

The larger alien that emerges from the mothership was created by Carlo Rambaldi, who would later create E.T.

Toby, Roy's son, is played by Justin Dreyfuss, Richard Dreyfuss' nephew.

The Major Benchley character is possibly a reference to Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws.

* Some of the crew members, including the makeup supervisor and two of the uncredited writers, make short cameo appearances. Other cameos were real federal agents and scientists for the scenes requiring, er, federal agents and scientists. *


Sources, cheeses, and fine wines:

* Trivia marked with a * comes from the IMDB, as does the cast information. Trivia not marked may also appear in the IMDB, but I got it from other sources - memory, TV interviews, and so on. I've tried to keep the trivia fresh, and not repeat things that most people already know about the movie, but if you didn't know that there's an upside down R2-D2 on the mothership, or that the aliens were played by kids, go to http://us.imdb.com/Trivia?0075860 for a big-ass list.

** Quote from a 1997 Total Film interview, Issue 8

Other italicised quotes are from the movie itself.

Visit the mothership landing site! Or just go to the mountain where some of it was filmed, if you're one of those boring people that think movies aren't real: www.newyoming.com/DevilsTower - check out the cool photographs, too. I remember, as a kid, being astonished to discover that it was a real mountain, and not an elaborate special effect.

Visit www.ce3k.co.uk for tons and tons more trivia, info, articles, interviews, links, images, and pretty much anything you want to know about the movie. Great website. Alien Heart, the story by Philip Ridley in the Appreciation section, is superb.

There are some details of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that one could nitpick about, but I love the movie unquestioningly. I recall, vividly, seeing it at the Inland Cinema in downtown San Bernardino, CA late in 1977, when I was 16. At the end, I realized I'd been sitting mouth agape and silent in the plush seats before the huge slightly curved screen for most of the film; so had everyone else in the packed old-style single-screen downtown cinema. Earlier that year I'd seen Star Wars down in Newport at a matinee in the cavernous Edwards Lido cinema with maybe a couple of dozen other viewers, shortly after it was released and before the buzz had built - a Time Magazine article had clued me in. It was almost too much to take that TWO nearly perfect science fiction movies had been offered in the same year.

Fast forward tot he 21st century. I live online. I have Close Encounters on DVD and watch it periodically; more often I put it on late at night to distract the verbal part of my mind until I can fall asleep. The Spielberg Variations, if you will.

Spoiler Alert

(as if a 30 year old movie needs it)

There's a section of the film where numbers are sent by the aliens:

104 44 30      40 36 10

repeated over and over. The French-to-English translator, who used to be a cartographer, recognizes them as Earth surface coordinates - 104 degrees, 44 minutes, 30 seconds (west) longitude (should be -104 44 30 to conform to current international standards) and 40 deg, 36 min, 10 sec (north) latitude, and some fun with a globe and maps ensues while they figure out where exactly that place is. Lines are shown on a topographic map, labeled with the given numbers and intersecting in a meadow just southeast of Devils Tower Monument in Wyoming. The team goes there, there're spaceships, music, hand signals, and so on.

Here's the problem:

At some point a dendrite from one of my Google Earth neurons stumbled into part of my Close Encounters neuron complex and I was spurred during a waking period to make a check while the computers were up and I was online. The numbers translate into decimal degrees of:

104.741667W, 40.602778N

The given coordinates are about 275 miles due south of Devils Tower! In Google Earth, these coordinates are in a small field of crops near someone's home on Hwy. 85 , about 60 miles due north of Denver, Colorado!

Using Google Earth, a spot in the meadow that looks about right based on the movie is reported as 104.707W, 44.5848N, which in DMS coordinates would be:

104 42 25      44 35 05

I'd file a report, but I wouldn't know what kind of a report to file.


(Perhaps this is where Jimmy Hoffa is, instead of that other place I noticed.)

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