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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Entry updated 12 May 2020. Tagged: Film.

Film (1977). Columbia. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Script credited to Spielberg but early draft actually written by Paul Schrader (1946-    ), who disagreed with Spielberg over the treatment of his script and withdrew his name from the project. Cast includes Bob Balaban, Melinda Dillon, Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Cary Guffey and François Truffaut. 135 minutes. Colour.

After Star Wars (1977) came the second major sf film production of 1977, at over twice the cost but with a story which, while lacking the comic-book appeal of Star Wars, perhaps cuts deeper in its evocation, rare in sf Cinema, of a Sense of Wonder; and which eschews the former's adolescent take on growing up as a Hero. Any "heroism" here is relatively (though movingly) muted, as befits a narrative set initially in the paradigmatically "ordinary" American small city of Muncie, Indiana, which (disguised) was the urban venue anatomized in the famous Middletown: A Study in American Culture (1929) by Robert S and Helen Merrell Lynd. Roy Neary (Dreyfuss), a Muncie power company technician, witnesses a series of UFO appearances and develops an obsession with them which is almost religious in its nature and intensity, a psychological fixation he shares with single mother Jillian Guiler (Dillon), whose small child is soon "abducted". Neary becomes convinced that Aliens plan to land one of their craft on an oddly shaped mountain in Wyoming. A parallel plot concerns a secret group of scientific and military experts, under the guidance of French scientist Claude Lacombe (Truffaut), also engaged in uncovering the secret of the UFOs. The film ends in a barrage of special effects when the spacecraft arrives; Communication between the two species is achieved through the manipulation of a partial tone-row of Music, mutually generated through bursts of light and sound. Having convinced Lacombe that he merits inclusion in the team assigned to continue the mission, Neary enters the mother ship, much as Tam Lin once entered the Fairy Mound, though it is not clear he is aware that he will not age there, and is taken to the Heavens in a glowing apotheosis; the elfishness of the slim aliens supports a reading in which UFO occupants are mythically equivalent to fairies. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has flaws, but remains an intensely evocative work, certainly one of the half-dozen best sf films to date. Despite the pressure from Columbia to produce a financial blockbuster, Spielberg did not take the easy way out but made an intelligent and relatively complex film, maintaining the high standards he had set himself in Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975). The special effects are excellent; the film won an Oscar for best cinematography. A different version, Close Encounters of the Third Kind – The Special Edition, was released in 1980.

The novelization, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), appeared as by Spielberg but was actually written by Leslie Waller. [JB/JC]

see also: History of SF; Linguistics.


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