USA / Columbia – EMI / 135 minutes / 1977
Writer and Director: Steve Spielberg / Music: John Williams / Producers: Julia and Michael Phillips / Special Effects: Douglas Trumbull / Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Carry Coffey
1977 was a good year for fans of special effects and tales of other worlds than ours – George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steve Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind were both released.
If Star Wars was a western set in outer space, with clearly defined goodies and baddies, CE3K was firmly set on Earth but tapped into the almost universal feeling that “We are not alone”. Spielberg set the tone with the opening sequence showing mysterious scientist François Truffaut being shown a legendary missing air force flight suddenly found in the Mexican desert – his main theme was that of everyman, with Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon the two protagonists.
Dreyfuss, a power company wireman, is sent out late night to find the cause of the power failure – the eerie scene when the two headlights behind him overtake by going up is still effective – who comes to believe in UFOs while Dillon’s son Carry Coffey is ‘snatched’ by the UFOs. Separately, they become obsessed by a strange structure that both realise is Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Meeting up along the way, they infiltrate the military/scientific welcome committee and find themselves privy to the most important event in earth’s history.
If occasionally the plot is a little confusing and if Dreyfuss and Dillon seem cut off from the film’s plot development, unable to control their destinies, all is forgiven in the last half hour when the UFOs glimpsed briefly during the film give way to a pyrotechnic display that precedes the arrival of the mothership.
Spielberg had his doubts – “I didn’t think it was going to do well. I didn’t know if I was the only person interested in UFOs, didn’t know if anyone could identify with a man who gives up his family”. For once the director was wrong – the film went on to be one of the world’s biggest box office takers but possibly not just for the special effects but because, as David Thomson wrote, “It is as close to a mystical experience as a major film has come because it is the mysticism of common sense.”
Vilmos Zsigmond won an academy award for his cinematography there were also nominations for John Williams and Melinda Dillon. In 1980 a “Special Edition” was released in an attempt to clear up some of the confusion surrounding Dreyfuss’s obsession with the mountain. It also extended out the space ship scenes to better effect.