Posted in: by Pierre Greenfield, Contributors, Essays

STOP – and be friendly: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

As everyone must know by now, the title of Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction extravaganza refers to an actual meeting with an extraterrestrial visitant; or, as the advertising more directly puts it, “contact.” “Contact” is very much what the movie is all about. No film since 2001: A Space Odyssey has applied E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” dictum so spectacularly. Explanations are unimportant, but understanding, intuitive and visceral, is paramount. Like 2001, Close Encounters is a stunning visual experience (both films feature the dazzling work of special effects man Douglas Trumbull, who also directed the excellent Silent Running in 1972); if it’s intellectually less profound, it has a more direct appeal to the emotions, and whether or not it’s in the same league as Kubrick’s masterpiece couldn’t concern me less. In other words, it’s good enough, for all Kubrick’s obvious influence on it, to stand on its own as a classic of the science-fiction genre, and also outside any genre considerations. And there aren’t many s-f films you can say that about.

Rumour has it that Spielberg planned to end the film by using “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the hit song from Disney’s cartoon Pinocchio, as the tune behind the closing credits.* It’s as well he didn’t; that would be spelling things out, which the film elsewhere avoids admirably, and also a touch twee. But it gives a hint of one of the film’s main aspects. It’s a magical movie, a film that exults in the potency of cinema, in the type of experience you can get only from a film, in the tools whereby a filmmaker can excite, entice and provoke his audience. And thus it becomes a film about films, and also about filmmaking. One of Spielberg’s leading actors (taking, indeed, nearly all the acting honours going) is François Truffaut, the artist as actor as critic, the man who not only came up with the longest-ever Hitchcock interview, but also once suggested that Howard Hawks’s big-game-catcher movie Hatari! was secretly an essay on the topic of filmmaking. A similar interpretation of Close Encounters holds a lot of water. When, at the film’s climax, Truffaut marshals enormous human and technical resources, shouting “Plus vite!” and “Allez!” whilst striding to and fro and waving his arms, he is, to all intents and purposes, a director controlling a set, the biggest in film history.

Truffaut played a film director in La Nuit Américaine and an educator in L’Enfant Sauvage; here he is another specialist in “contact,” the world’s greatest expert on UFOs. We first see him arriving in the Sonora Desert in Mexico, in a sense “scouting locations.” Several U.S. Air Force aeroplanes that went missing unaccountably in 1945 have turned up amidst the sand dunes overnight. They are in mint condition, fully functional and, as a baffled observer says, “They look brand new.” One of the investigating Air Force people unearths a 1945 calendar in one plane and its colours haven’t faded one whit. Lacombe (Truffaut) interrogates an old Mexican housed in a nearby shack. The old man is in a kind of happy daze, and explains what happened in a sentence which puzzles the assorted military types but strikes a chord (appropriate phrase) with the more poetic Lacombe: “Last night, the sun came out … and sang….”

François Truffaut as Lacombe

It’s a good while since I saw a film that got off to so arresting a start, which hooked its audience quite so swiftly or so deftly. This prologue to sensational events not only baffles and intrigues on its own; it also introduces us wittily to the film’s major theme, and establishes the drama’s major conflict, which is not between Earthlings and Others, but between individuals and forces. The inhuman bureaucratic machine, both political and military, is of far more bother to the film’s heroes than the extraterrestrials, who are entirely benign. The opening images might almost locate us on another planet already: sand and dust whirl about us like fog, and headlights piercing this eye-stinging murk might well belong to craft more sinister than the various jeeps that transport Lacombe & Co. to the site of the discovered aeroplanes. The confusion engendered by nature, in turn, is nothing to that worked up by the people: the Mexicans speak no English, Lacombe has no Spanish, the Americans ne parlent pas francais, and anyway no one can make out a word anyone is saying because of all that wind and sand.

“Contact”? Not to be found. Spielberg’s setting-up of elementary and idiotic ruptures of communication in this scene is very shrewd, and acquires significance only much later. In this respect, he parallels his working methods with his plot, for the exposition develops in exactly the same way. Having planted all his basic hooks in this opening, Spielberg makes us wait until the very end of the film before they are finally snapped. Similarly, Spielberg also sets out in this one brief sequence the work pattern the audience must follow. The “brand new” quality of the aeroplanes isn’t explained; we have to spot, in a second or two, the unfaded look of that calendar for ourselves. We are not spoon-fed bits of exposition; as per 2001, the feel of the movie is more important than the talk of it. Even so, it is a more caustic film than it first seems to be as we leave the cinema. The sheer benignity of the closing sequences should not blind us to the severity of Spielberg’s view of military and political authority.

This is with us from the first. The lack of communication between the various earthbound factions is neatly symbolised, not merely by the failure of the military types to comprehend Lacombe, but by their interchanges with his earnest young interpreter, Laughlin (Bob Balaban), who ponderously explains that translating isn’t his actual fulltime profession; “I’m a cartographer,” he tells them, and is then compelled by their ignorance of their own language to redefine this as “You know, a mapmaker….” This continues throughout the film. Military-type jargon is forever confusing things for members of the public used to more sensible English. Even Lacombe and Laughlin are not free of these communications breakdowns. Lacombe learns pretty soon not to call Laughlin “Log-leen,” but sometimes Laughlin gets so carried away by his sense of duty and excitement that he continues supplying English translation even when Lacombe has slipped into his own broken English. Interviewed by these two and baffled by their references to “close encounters” and the like, the film’s man-in-the-street hero Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) suddenly yells out a what-the-hell-is-going-on-here? appeal that we are only too keen to echo.**

Roy is the antithesis of the standard s-f film heroes; in fact, he’s a pretty unusual hero for an American movie of any kind these days. A sympathetic and uncondescending portrait of an ordinarily intelligent, averagely personable, not-very-well-off blue-collar worker is rare at all, and it’s rarer still for such a fellow to be a movie’s central character. Roy is, ironically enough, a power worker. The film charts his growing awareness of a power quite different from and superior to anything he (or any of us) has ever encountered, and it’s also about the increase in his own powers, which he had never previously suspected. Roy’s power is needed, for, like the aliens who contact him – and, it’s implied, like us, too, if only we knew it – he’s up against power of a more conventional, and thus more nasty, sort. The power of them, the people who constitute the powers-that-be, the military and the CIA, the ones who are trying to keep everything under wraps, who, understanding nothing themselves, are only too keen that no one else shall understand anything either. The castigation of these establishment types is searing; thus the Spielberg film Close Encounters most resembles isn’t Jaws or Duel (whose identical plot premises are reversed, so that the unknown force is benevolent), but The Sugarland Express, where the equivalent of the monster-from-the-id that those two other movies centered on was that never-ending metal snake of police cars, a multi-faceted Leviathan filled with gun-toting upholders of law and order out to keep ordinary folk in their place (jail), no matter what.

Talking of monsters from the id, the first sighting by us of alien craft seems to me a pretty direct reference to the opening shot of Forbidden Planet (another film where the major human virtues were embodied by something alien, Robbie the Robot). It’s but one of a huge number of mostly fleeting hommages to the wonderworld of the movies. The lightshow effects, the balletically gyrating spaceships and the ironic use of music all suggest 2001 (and our one closeup of an extraterrestrial reminded me, if vaguely, of the Starchild); a TV clip from The Ten Commandments may bring to mind the something-coming-out-of-the-sky shot (heralding the plagues) in that film, which is vaguely echoed here, albeit with meaning reversed, in two sequences where four-year-old Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) is drawn out into the night by his psychic communication with the aliens and doesn’t see (as we do, if we look quickly and carefully) that something – a star? a meteorite? or what? – is moving, closer…. The visual contrasts and uniform soullessness inherent in the presentation of Roy Neary’s two non-home milieux may bring Metropolis to mind; if the power company hardhats are the have-nots and the military/CIA complex’s employees are the haves (and what they have, of course, is power), nevertheless both groups are pretty much alike in their meanness of spirit and soul-eating mediocrity, just like the opposed factions in Lang’s film. What Roy Neary learns – what he, like the other people who answer the musical call of the UFOs, instinctively knows, I should perhaps say – is what Lang’s message in Metropolis is, too: that the heart should always mediate between the head and the hand.

The alien ship

More than these, however, are the hommages to one specific filmmaker, Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense had enough of an influence on Jaws, too (especially in its first, more successful half); here allusions abound, direct and indirect, large and small. As Roy and Barry’s mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon), drive to Devil’s Tower, the flat-topped mountain that has infested their imaginations from the very first close encounter, two caged birds (to test for gas in the allegedly poisoned atmosphere) swing and sway just like the two lovebirds on Melanie’s front seat in The Birds; and the landscape without, as in that earlier film, is ominously deserted and quite unnaturally green. When, on a lonely road in a blackout, Roy’s van is assailed by lights and freak electrical phenomena, the joke-shock in the aftermath of this – Roy’s torch comes back on and blasts still more light in his face – is a device identical in method and purpose to Vera Miles’s horror on spying what turns out to be her own mirror-reflection in Psycho. The silent, frozen nursery of that film has its exact inverse in Barry’s room here, a quiet mausoleum of toys that magically turns into a kind of somewhere-over-the-rainbow Disneyland as all the inert mechanical toys suddenly spring into life thanks to the aliens’ electrical-reversal skills. And if the first meeting of Roy and Jillian, when his van nearly runs down runaway Barry, is only coincidentally like Karen Black crossing the path of Bruce Dern’s taxi in Family Plot (Spielberg had, I think, already started shooting when that film first appeared), there can be no doubts at all about his sustained tribute to the other Hitchcock-Ernest Lehman collaboration, North by Northwest, which takes us neatly into Spielberg’s eye-bending climax. Having realised that the scare about escaped poison gas (designed to keep people away from Devil’s Tower) is nothing more than an elaborate governmental MacGuffin (and Spielberg’s opinion of that stratagem is indicated by the fact that the four gentlemen who devise the lie are referred to in the final cast-list simply as “Dirty Tricks” #s 1-4), Roy and Jillian, with a third would-be UFO buff, set off up Devil’s Tower on foot. Out of nowhere comes a helicopter, referred to as a “crop-duster”, which proceeds to bomb them with a gas that isn’t imaginary. The central action-sequence of North by Northwest is then neatly blended with the closing one, as Roy and Jillian carry on up the perilous stone face and are separated by tumbling rock; the arms-outstretched shot is a direct recreation of Cary Grant grabbing for Eva Marie Saint and, as in the earlier film, the pragmatic necessity of “holding on” is a handy visual expression of both the survival instinct of the human spirit’s best qualities and of the two characters’ emotional need for and dependence on each other.

The kiss that Roy and Jillian exchange as they part on reaching the summit and Lacombe’s enormous landing strip for the UFOs is not, I think, to be interpreted in narrowly sexual or even strictly romantic terms. As much as anything, the film is about the need for understanding, tolerance and love. There is no man in the attractive Jillian’s life and she seems to have no friends. When the aliens invade her home and carry off her son, she is assailed by light and is terrified (incidentally, the aliens enter the Guiler home just as Hitchcockian Birds do the Brenner household, via the chimney), but it transpires that her visitors are entirely amicable; when she goes to the police, she is again assailed by light (flashbulbs from a score of journalists, and ugly overhead strip-lighting), and everyone who is officially out to help her is unfriendly. It is as if her only allies, apart from Barry, are the aliens themselves. This seems to apply to Roy, too. He is bullied at work, pestered by his pretty beanbrain of a wife (who can’t be out of her twenties and has three children already), fired when he mentions seeing the UFOs and reduced to near-breakdown by the incomprehension of his family, who respond to his insistence on finding out what’s what by leaving him, presumably forever. Authority, as previously stated, is entirely nasty. The Army is supposed to be trying to save people from what they think will be certain death by evacuating the area around Devil’s Tower, but our only contact with it comes when, in the midst of herding people onto an overcrowded train like so many cattle (or prisoners), one soldier pointedly informs Roy, whom he apparently suspects of being a looter, that he’s likely to be killed if he doesn’t get the hell out. Similarly, the crop-dusting scene has pointed ecological overtones, as witness a brief shot in which the birds literally fall down.

The humanity implicit in the very ordinariness of Roy and Jillian is what attracts us to them. In the realm of characterization, this film is something of an advance for Spielberg. He demonstrates a good feeling for the extraordinary qualities (or do I mean simply the humanity?) of essentially unexceptional people. There are plenty of other examples of this: it’s the unassuming, rather nervous Laughlin who spots what the huge team of international scientists misses, that the numbers being endlessly reiterated in the UFOs’ radio transmissions constitute a map reference; and there is the marvelous hill type, the silent, wild-eyed old boy (Roberts Blossom) who reacts to his first glimpse of UFO by humming a revivalist hymn and who definitively puts down the smarmy Air Force representative (who would have him believe he’s seen some form of helicopter) by asserting that “I saw Bigfoot once!” – one of the cinema’s great beat-that! statements. It’s he who turns up at one point sporting a placard reading “Stop – And Be Friendly!”, a message directed, of course, at the aliens, but received, ironically and appropriately, by fellow-Earthlings; for the UFO that comes out of the sky on this second night proves to be an Air Force helicopter tricked up to convince witnesses that they must have been in error after all, first time round. Given this, “Stop” means “pause and consider” – not a bad suggestion in our loveless world.

Spielberg’s own compassion, significantly, extends to the dim, confused Mrs. Neary (Teri Garr’s performance is wonderfully unpatronising and free from stereotypical mannerisms or cheap jokes). And his optimism at the film’s end, where the aliens sensibly reject the team of specially trained astronauts the scientists want to foist on them (at least, we never see these people boarding the spacecraft) and take Roy off into Outer Space with them instead, seems unbounded. In its humanitarian aspect, the film aims for the largeness of spirit we usually associate with Jean Renoir. What more natural, then, but that the film’s voice of reason should be played by the film-maker who is spiritual heir to both Renoir and Hitchcock? The aliens communicate with the Earthlings in the film by means of one branch of art, music, and to us in the audience by means of another branch, the infinite technical resources of the cinema. Naturally, another artist was needed to orchestrate the two; Truffaut, the kindest film director still practising his art, was obviously the man for the job. Lacombe has little patience with the military and security types forever in his hair but he knows, like Renoir’s Octave, that tout le monde a ses raisons. Only the pure in heart shall make the final close encounter. Which leads us, lastly, to the film’s theological undertones.

Roys invitation by the aliens
Roy's invitation to the mission

I’m not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take these; not entirely, perhaps. Our first hint of religiosity, after all, is a sonorous extract from the most famous film of that pious man, Cecil B. DeMille. The shots of Charlton Heston’s Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land have a reverberation, of course: Roy, who jokingly tells his wife that he’ll send the kids off to bed “after five commandments,” goes to the mountaintop himself, and receives a message he didn’t quite expect – and his Holy Land is far, far away, to put it mildly. Plenty of commentators have noted that the friendly kidnapping of Barry Guiler by the aliens is a case of “Suffer little children.” Furthermore, the number of True Believers (in UFOs, that is) who get as far as Devil’s Tower is exactly the same as the number of Christ’s disciples; and if many are called, few are chosen, for only Roy and Jillian get to the top of the mountain. And once there, only Roy keeps on ascending to the starry heavens.

It’s Jillian, though, who first sees the mother-ship for which all the UFOs seen heretofore are merely satellites; her exclamation of “Oh my God!” on catching sight of this unbelievable, breathtaking (and utterly, dumbfoundingly enormous) fortress of light is, in context, quite appropriate. The chief of the extraterrestrials is first seen striking a sort of cruciform pose in silhouette, and his face, when we get to see it up close, is very much representative of “suffering humanity.” (Was it a mistake on Spielberg’s part not to keep the features of the aliens mysterious, ambiguous? Maybe. But it’s a mistake on the side of aesthetic boldness, and thus to be forgiven.) Lastly, is it impudent to suggest that, just as this mother-ship has overtones of godhead status (it disgorges not only an unscathed Barry Guiler but also the pilots of those missing aeroplanes found at the beginning – all of them still young men, i.e., the recipients of a form of eternal life), so Roy Neary acquires, as he enters the ship, a sort of Messianic status? Don’t forget that he is a bearded Jew of proletarian origins, thirty-three years old and with, we learn, a birthday in December. The extraterrestrial children flock around him naturally, and he is changed forever. As the mother-ship takes off for the unknown and the film ends, we reflect that, if a “close encounter of the fourth kind” is transcendence of the spirit, you have, as Christianity suggests, to leave the earth before you can achieve it.

© 1978 Pierre Greenfield

* This “rumour” was correct insofar as the song was used in the Dallas preview print surreptitiously covered by certain reviewers, who duly mentioned it in their premature articles.  – Ed.

** In part because a scene in which “close encounters” of the “first,” “second,” and “third” kinds were defined was trimmed from the final release prints, although it was glimpsed in the trailers for the film. – Ed.

Screenplay and direction: Steven Spielberg. Special effects conceived by Steven Spielberg; special photographic effects by Douglas Trumbull; special effects photography: Richard Yuricich. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond; additional cinematography by Douglas Slocombe (India), William A. Fraker (U.S.A.), John A. Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs. Production design: Joseph R. Alves. Editing: Michael Kahn. Music: John Williams. Production: Michael Phillips and Julia Phillips; associate: Clark Paylow.
The players: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Cary Guffey, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, Roberts Blossom, George DiCenzo, Warren Kemmerling, Josef Sommer.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.