“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
Movies about making contact with aliens ask a lot of different questions. What if they’re hostile? What if we’re hostile? What if they come to warn us? What if we can’t coexist? Close Encounters of the Third Kind asks and answers a much simpler question: wouldn’t it be cool? Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) wrote the script to try to capture the mood of a childhood memory of him and his father going to see a meteor shower, and that childlike wonder shines through here. Unlike most sci-fi films, this doesn’t pose ethical dilemmas or ask us to consider the implications of modern society. This is more of a straight-up drama that uses sci-fi elements to elicit deep emotions of curiosity and wonder. It’s admittedly more of a kids film, but this is extremely well-done and can be a happy little escape from the harsh demands of the real world for adults as well.
The plot jumps around between a few people, but spends most of its time following Roy Nearie, a happily-married father of two, and Jillian Guiler, a single mom taking care of her son. Both Roy and Jillian, along with a number of others, have close encounters with some flying saucers that have decided to visit earth for unknown reasons. This leaves them with vague psychic memories given to them by the aliens that they are driven to figure out. This obsession takes its toll on Roy’s family and Jillian’s as well, but the two keep following the clues in the hopes of getting some answers.
We didn’t choose this place! We didn’t choose these people! They were invited!
This was 1977, so the special effects were way more primitive than today’s films, but they actually hold up really well. The flying saucers don’t have a lot of screen time, but everything feels very real—real enough to give you that sense of awe that the film is trying to evoke. There’s a lot of mystery and urgency surrounding the aliens’ arrival and the visions that sends most of the characters toward an inevitable first contact, and the closing scenes do not disappoint.
There’s a real innocence in this film. Sure, the characters behave like normal people, so you have a bit of conflict and adult language as everyone tries to figure out what’s going on, but the main point everything is driving toward is refreshingly wholesome. Spielberg has a real talent for telling tender stories about parents and their kids, and this is no exception. There are moments parents will relate to, and moments that the kid in us can definitely relate to. But the excitement of a huge new step for humanity is captured brilliantly in this film.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind captures the awe and wonder of humanity making contact with a benevolent alien species, and it will probably make you feel like a kid again. It’s very similar in both tone and theme to Spielberg’s later film, E.T.—so much so that Spielberg himself later said that he’d always considered E.T. to be a sequel to this film. In a sea of dangerous and troubling alien movies, the purity and innocence of this one is as refreshing today as it was over 40 years ago, and this remains a classic that everyone should probably see.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: Steven Spielberg
Genres: drama, sci-fi