Study Guide

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Introduction

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Introduction


Release Year: 1977

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon


The truth is out there, people.

And it's in the mashed potatoes.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about the search for that truth. It's the story of Roy Neary, an ordinary guy who has an extraordinary encounter with a UFO and becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to him. In his quest to solve the mystery, he's mysteriously drawn to Devil's Tower, Wyoming, where he witnesses the arrival of an alien spacecraft and gets a boarding pass to infinity and beyond.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, fresh off his blockbuster smash Jaws, CE3K was a huge success when it hit theaters. It made truckloads of money for its distributor, Columbia Pictures—$132,088,635 to be exact. Lucky for them, since the company was facing bankruptcy in '77 and had risked a then-incredible sum of $20 million on the film. (Source)

  

Along with Star Wars, released just seven months earlier, Close Encounters heralded "a flood of Hollywood films with killer special effects," an eye-candied wave that Hollywood's still riding today. (Source)

The film scooped up eight Academy Award noms, including Best Director, Best Visual Effects, and Best Music/Original Score. It won only one of the eight, with Best Cinematography going to the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond, but the Academy awarded it a Special Achievement Award for sound effects editing. It also took home a BAFTA for Best Art Direction and two Saturn Awards for Best Director and Best Music (John Williams). (Source)

All in all, not too shabby a trophy case for a sci-fi flick.

Although it didn't spawn a real-world religion like its Force-wielding brethren, Close Encounters has entered our pop-cultural consciousness. People who haven't even seen the film might be familiar with its most iconic moments: the five-note phrase, the mashed potatoes scene, and the UFO designs. It's not as popular today as in the late '70s—likely because the UFO craze ran its course in America—but you can still find it on "Best Of" lists everywhere.

What made the film so much more than a special-effects/alien spaceship romp was the Spielberg magic: the sense of joyful wonder, the focus on an ordinary guy in an extraordinary circumstance, his identification with the child's sense of awe, and the dazzling use of lighting throughout the film.

And including French director François Truffaut as the just-about-perfect UFO scientist didn't hurt, either.

When the aliens finally do get here, we hope they're the Spielberg version: peaceful and soulful, letting us know that we're all one big, happy universe and that everything's gonna be okay. And that our Internet speeds will be off the charts by 2020, guaranteed.

Now, can you please pass those mashed potatoes?

What is Close Encounters of the Third Kind About and Why Should I Care?

Spielberg 101

You should care because…Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg's probably the most influential and best-known Hollywood director of contemporary cinema. Maybe you're not a fan. Maybe you think he's overrated. But for a moment, we want you to imagine if someone had unironically written that about Michael Bay.

Just think about it.

Whatever your personal opinions on Spielberg's work, there's no doubting his influence on the moviemaking industry. His first major hit, Jaws, practically invented the summer blockbuster, totally changing the types of movies studios invested in and the way they marketed them.

Jaws could easily have been a one-hit wonder for a 26-year-old (yeah, you read that right) director. Close Encounters is the movie that proved Spielberg had his imagination tuned in to the American audience's psyche. It sealed the deal on audiences and critics recognizing a young genius in their midst. Roger Ebert, writing in TIME Magazine, noted that Spielberg's insight was that "there was an enormous audience to be created if old-style B-movie stories were made with A-level craftsmanship and enhanced with the latest developments in special effects." (Source)

In combination with his next mega-hits, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T, the film proved Spielberg's staying power and his talent as a director. Thanks to Close Encounters, not even 1941 could kill this guy's career.

Close Encounters (an early title being Watch the Skies) is also the film that proved Spielberg's talent for directing special effects spectacles, talents he'd use to great effect in later films like E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds. He even experimented with CGI, though the existing 1970s technology ultimately made it too difficult and expensive to use. Spielberg would return to the concept nearly two decades later with Jurassic Park, paving the way for the CGI revolution we know and love-hate today.

In a sense, CE3K is a preview of the rest of Spielberg's filmography. Film critic Angie Errigo summed it up:

Watching Close Encounters is like an entertaining study guide to the filmmaker and his body of work. Not just a signature film, Close Encounters — the only one of his movies before A.I. written as well as directed by him — encompasses all the major themes, concerns and elements that recur throughout Spielberg's career. There are his staple characters (the individual driven on a quest, the sympathetic mother, the lost boy wise-innocent, the untrustworthy, obstructive authorities). There is a transforming experience that creates a need to fulfill a mission or wish. There is the use of bright light as literal and metaphorical illumination. There are rescue, redemption, and affirmation of an individual's worth. (Source)

Spielberg told Roger Ebert that his master image—the one that most expressed how he, as a filmmaker, saw things—was "the light flooding in through the doorway in Close Encounters, suggesting, simultaneously, a brightness and mystery outside." (Source)

For Spielberg, that mystery offered not a threat, but an invitation. The director vividly remembers a night when his father, like Roy Neary, bundled him into the car in the middle of the night and whisked him off to watch something amazing— a meteor shower. His fear turned to awe as he watched the cosmic display.

Fortunately for us, he passed along that childhood experience—and its sense of amazement and wonder—in Close Encounters.

We just have to keep our eyes open and watch the skies.

Trivia

Did you know that R2-D2 is in Close Encounters? True fact. Dennis Muren, who worked on miniature and optical effects for the original Star Wars, also headed mother ship photography for Close Encounters. In one shot, Muren and Gregory Jein, the film's chief model maker, added a little R2 to the mother ship and illuminated it with backlight, so as not to be too obvious. If you're looking for the astrodroid hitchhiker, he appears at roughly the 1:54:00 time mark. (Source)

François Truffaut worked diligently on his English during production, but his French accent caused a few communication breakdowns. For example, when he delivered the line "They belong here more than we," some crewmembers heard, "Zey belong here, Mozambique." The phrase became a running joke on set, and t-shirts were even printed. Truffaut found the whole thing hilarious, which is good because we think Truffaut's English is very endearing. (Source)

It's not easy working with toddler actors. Spielberg came up with all sorts of ways to elicit three-year-old Cary Guffey's (Barry) natural performance. In the scene where Barry first sees the aliens, Spielberg had one crewmember dress as a clown and another in a gorilla suit and told them to stand off camera. When Guffey came around the corner and saw them, Spielberg caught the boy's natural surprise on camera. To get Guffey to smile, the gorilla removed its mask to reveal the crewmember's face. (Source)

To prevent the press from spoiling the film's ending, Spielberg kept the model of the mother ship locked up in his garage. (Source)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Resources

WEBSITES

Cinematic Preservatives
Close Encounters came out 40 years ago, but it still holds a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. You can find out how the movie has stayed fresh here.

In the Details
Ray Morton has written an extensive guide to the making of Close Encounters for any fan looking to know what Spielberg had for lunch on the 53rd day of production. Okay, maybe not that detailed, but pretty close.

Trivia Pursuit
Do you enjoy facts, data, details, trivia, factoids, and behind-the-scenes knowledge? Then we've found your Close Encounters page at the Turner Classic Movies website.

That's a Lot of Mojo
Close Encounters has accumulated about $116 million dollars in domestic box office. See what other financial mojo has bolstered the film's swagger at "Box Office Mojo."

BOOK OR TV ADAPTATIONS

Credit Where Contractual Obligation Is Due
Spielberg co-wrote the novelization with Leslie Waller, although one of those two names is mysteriously absent from the cover.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

One of the Greats
AMC Filmsite gives an extensive review as part of its Greatest Films series. It's less a review and more a novella's worth of reasons to check out the film.

15 Things You Didn't Know
Unless, of course, you did know some of the things on this Mental Floss list. In which case, curb your expectations accordingly.

A Novel Approach
Are the books always better than the movies? Jennifer Makowsky compares the Close Encounters novelization with its cinematic counterpart and suggests this might be the exception to the rule.

Thumbs Up
Did legendary film critic Roger Ebert like Close Encounters? Yes. How much did he like it? Visit his webpage to find out.

Two-Hour Cram Session
In her review, Angie Errigo argues that Close Encounters isn't just a great movie but a stand-alone study guide to Spielberg's body of work.

Spoiler-Free Zone
In this pre-release interview, Steven Spielberg discusses Close Encounters with Roger Ebert while keeping the final 43 minutes entirely classified. He is truly a forefather of the spoiler warning.

VIDEO

Behind the Scenes
What can a filmmaker do with a mixture of salt water, fresh water, and white paint? You'll have to watch his "making of" documentary to find out.

Back in the Day
In this interview, Steven Spielberg looks back on Close Encounters after 30 years.

What the What Now?
Remember when movie trailers didn't give away the entire movie in roughly two minutes? Close Encounter's original trailer runs twice that and manages to spoil nothing. In fact, we only vaguely know what the movie is about, and we've already watched it.

Spielberg's Top Ten
Does Close Encounters make the cut? Let's just say 1941 won't be any competition.

AUDIO

Atonal Listening
Here's a ready-made playlist of the Close Encounters soundtrack. It's good stuff even if the first few tracks don't make for easy listening.

The Famous 5 Note Phrase
Actually that title kind of says it all, doesn't it?

In Review
Filmtracks provides its review of Close Encounters' soundtrack as well as its variants, in case you ever wanted to know how your Lacombe bootleg copy has held up.

IMAGES

Viewing Notes
The movie poster for Close Encounters explains what the three kinds of alien encounters are and that's it. You want to find out more? You'll have to see the film.

Killer Model
Less America's Next Top Model and more local arts and hobbies store, the Smithsonian's model of the mother ship is still a thing of beauty.

Mt. Spudmore
Here's a still image of Roy's famous mashed-potatoes sculpture, a scene that has seared itself into our pop culture consciousness just as Devils Tower implanted itself into Roy's brain.

Trick-or-Treat
We know the film's aliens look like children in masks because that's exactly what they are, but whenever we see this scene, we have to fight the urge to give our extraterrestrial visitors a Fun Size Snickers.

Eureka!
In this famous scene, Roy finally figures out what the mysterious image is.

Who's Directing Whom?
Here's Truffaut and Spielberg on set.

Handling the Talent
Spielberg playing with child actor Cary Guffey.

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