A Classic Film from an Iconic Director
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a Steven Spielberg classic, both written and directed by him. The protagonist of the film is Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who seems to have a fairly typical family, with a fairly typical life and a fairly typical job working for the electric company.
Around the world, strange things have been appearing at random in the deserts. First, war planes from World War Two appear in Mexico. When they turn the ignition, they still work. Later on, a passenger ship is found in the Gobi Desert.
Back in Indiana, Roy Neary goes out on a late-night call from work when he happens to have a close encounter with an alien ship featuring very bright lights, intense enough to leave Roy with sunburn. His encounter leaves him with far more questions than answers, and meanwhile, everyone around him thinks that he is going insane.
Roy Neary has seen something very strange, indeed. However, he is not the most articulate person around. He sees this shape of a mountain, though he does not recognize it as such at first, in practically everything after his encounter: in shaving cream, in mashed potatoes, and in mounds of mud.
Roy is not alone in seeing this shape. Others who have also encountered the UFO’s seem to see this shape in their minds also. But others have a better way of expressing the shape, and it would seem the others clearly know that the shape is a mountain. The question is which mountain?
Meanwhile, the government has discovered the correct mountain through deciphering an alien message, which at first just seemed like a pattern of numbers until they figured out that they were actually latitude and longitude coordinates. The government does their best to drive people away from the mountain, deploying any measures to stop them, including nerve gas. At the same time, Roy drives off his family with his apparent insanity. People just aren’t stopping to listen, notably Ronnie, to what he has to say.
After Ronnie takes herself and the kids to her sister’s house, Roy continues on building his mountain model, and he finally figures out what the mountain shape was about. Apparently, the alien scout ships gave those who saw the ships a psychic message of the location of their landing site. Of course, the government doesn’t want to let that happen.
When Roy discovers the identity of the mountain on the TV news, he sets off in a rental to Wyoming to get some answers. Along the way, he meets up with Jillian, whom he met earlier on just after his first encounter. It turns out that her little boy, Barry, has been taken by the aliens. They are met by many of the same people at the sightings, many of whom had not gotten this far. With all the defenses the government has set in place, only Roy and Jillian are able to make it to the top of the mountain, where they witness the most amazing thing, the arrival of the alien mother ship.
We then discover the source of these random appearances of objects around the world. It turns out that the missing Navy officers and Air Force pilots, as well as a good number of other missing folks, had been abducted by these aliens some years before. They returned to bring them back to Earth, seemingly unharmed, and they haven’t aged, as well. Of course, little Barry is returned as well, quite unharmed and quite happy that they “played” with him. It is a happy ending. Roy decides, along with a few others, that they will join the aliens back to their world. Jillian is reunited with Barry, and Roy goes off into space to get some answers to his million questions.
What Makes "Close Encounters" a Classic?
What makes this film a classic? Indeed, it leaves us with many questions. It has a happy ending and all of that jazz, but what happens to Roy? A film like this does not really have to provide all of the answers. That is the beauty of this film. You can watch it and wonder why everything happens. We are left with a great many questions. Why did Roy leave Earth? What did he have to go back to? He had no home now. His wife was through with him and he had no job. The aliens had the answers to his questions.
This is a film about wonder. As we grow older, we often lose the wonder for the world that we had as a child. The whole mountain shape drives Roy insane; he can’t explain what it is. Why can’t he articulate such a seemingly simple idea? Roy is an everyday guy, who to some may seem a little dumb, but if you were to see something like a UFO encounter, you probably would not be able to explain it any better than Roy did. What sort of description can you use for such a magnificent sight; especially if it was bright enough to give you sunburn? (I never quite understood that part of it.) He’s just your run-of-the-mill vocational worker with an ordinary family, albeit one with a wife who pretty much thought he was nuts before all this “space alien” junk started.
Though Roy doesn’t understand everything that’s going on, he does somehow know that the government has been hiding something very important from them. He brings up a good point. Why can’t people have their questions answered? Just because they are everyday people, they can’t take part in something wonderful? That’s what the government says: keep everything top secret and away from all the other simple ordinary Jacks and Jills. But, people need a sense of adventure in their lives. It’s a trip away from the mundane, and some people will risk their very lives to get a piece of the action.
Roy goes crazy because he wants his questions answered and no one will listen to him. He doesn’t have a wife that’s overly supportive of him, though his kids are fairly excited. In fact, no one is really supportive of him, other than those at the sightings. Mr. Neary is not the brightest bulb on the face of the earth, but he knows that something is very wrong. It is a perfectly healthy thing to wonder about things that cannot be easily explained, but society has limits on how far you can go with it.
Unfortunately, as Spielberg illustrates, society believes such wonder should be left to children, and adults should be the serious ones. So who does the government think they are? Were they simply trying to protect everyone? Did they somehow already really know that their missing military personnel really had been abducted by aliens? It was an incredibly good guess to be so ready to welcome all of them home! People often don’t just know what to think of what they don’t understand. It would seem that the older one gets, the more difficult it is for them to deal with the unknown, whereas a child can simply use his or her imagination to explain it all. Imagination is such an important human characteristic, and Spielberg definitely tried to tell us that through this film.
How Would Audiences Today View "Close Encounters?"
There are critics of this film who argue over the relaxed pace of the film, and some who will even call it “boring.” It is not your typical film, and not your typical story. The movie runs much more like a book than a typical Hollywood film. This is understandable because it is actually based on a novel that Spielberg himself wrote. Therefore, his script stayed a lot more faithful to his book than the adaptations that are usually made from books to film.
There are a number of deleted scenes from the film that were prominent in the book. For example, there is a scene about Roy’s job with the electric company and the reason that he gets fired becomes a bit clearer; because of his encounter with the alien, he doesn’t get to the job he was supposed to do, and loses his job over it. There is also a scene at the airport where the passengers aboard the first plane to have the close encounter are asked to hand over their cameras and other recording devices by the government. They are promised that everything would be returned to them and any pictures developed, albeit with the ones the government doesn’t want turning up to be blanked out, which explains why no one has seen “photographic evidence” of the UFO’s. Everything has only been first-hand accounts without solid proof, because the government has been very careful to make sure that these things stay secret. Apparently, they underestimated the aliens, who used psychic messages to contact those who were at the encounters.
These scenes were probably edited out because of the already pretty substantial, over two hours and fifteen minutes, length of the film; however, I certainly think the movie isn’t complete without them. The film paces like a book, and a lot of moviegoers today wouldn’t be able to understand it.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a film that, if it were released today, probably would not be received the same way as it was back in the seventies. That is not only because of the dated special effects, but today’s producers would find this film a little on the slow side. However, I found the rather slow pace of the film to be fairly relaxing, and it had a clever, well-planned story that I enjoyed following.
What I found most interesting about the film is how Spielberg was able to transition the book so well into the film; unfortunately, some telling scenes were cut from the theatrical version that would’ve made the film better as a whole (they are included as deleted scenes in the Collector’s version.) Compared to the malevolent alien films put out there today, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a refreshing alternative with a little bit more intellectual input than your average human beings win over alien invaders plot. Spielberg certainly didn’t start the aliens from space idea. But, he certainly made them a little friendlier, and it is this very legacy that makes it such a classic.