Close Encounters: E.T.’s First Visit

WE ARE NOT ALONE.

In 1964, the 16-year-old Steven Spielberg directed a science fiction film called Firelight. Clocking in at an impressive 135 minutes, the movie was made for $500 and premiered at a local theater in Arizona. Spielberg charged one dollar per visitor and the movie made a profit of one dollar (there were 500 visitors and Spielberg reckoned someone must have paid two dollars). Firelight is the story of a group of scientists tracking UFOs and when Spielberg finally became a successful filmmaker in the mid-70s, he decided to revisit the themes of Firelight. After all, it had turned a profit.

Muncie, Indiana. Electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family are happily unaware of a series of strange events that are confusing scientists; lost WWII fighter planes in mint condition have been found in a Mexican desert, and in the skies above Indianapolis two airliners are close to colliding with a very fast and bright object. When a huge power outage one late evening requires Roy’s presence, he has an encounter with a UFO on a dark road. The experience is overwhelming and he meets a group of other people who also become witnesses, including Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her three-year-old son. Several police cars start chasing the objects, but fail to catch up. The next day, Roy is still fascinated by what he’s seen, but his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) doesn’t really believe him. As Roy’s obsession grows, the aliens return and abduct Jillian’s son…

Nostalgia for childhood
It’s easy to regard Close Encounters as sort of a prequel to E.T. (1982) as both films share so much. There is an obvious nostalgia for childhood (the scenes with the three-year-old are all beautifully staged) and fear of ignorant authorities. The scientists may know more or less what they’re doing, but the Army is a clumsy force that poses a danger to both aliens and humans. On a visual level, Carlo Rambaldi’s design of the extra-terrestrials is very similar to how E.T. would end up looking. A central theme in both films is the art of communication. How do you talk to a being from outer space? Music is the answer in Close Encounters and a very simple, now classic, five-tone melody becomes a barrier breaker. Another theme that unites both movies is the effect that the alien visit has on a family. In E.T., the visitor becomes an endearing part of the family’s lives, which is less interesting than the case of Close Encounters, where Roy’s obsession with what happened to him takes increasingly absurd turns that eventually tears the family apart. Dreyfuss, who reunited with the director after Jaws (1975), is a perfect choice to play this regular guy and he does so with a sense of humor; he’s the standout. One reason for that could be a general lack of genuinely interesting characters. The scientists remain cardboard and Dillon is unable to contribute much of anything to a role that should have been more interesting, but is too underwritten.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t touching. There are those moments, particularly in the climactic meeting with the aliens and abductees. Spielberg also paces the film well and gives us (in collaboration with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) a few sequences that take our breath away, such as Roy’s first encounter with the aliens. The movie often looks gorgeous; much of what we see in those night-time shots (such as the stars and trees) are visual effects, but one rarely thinks of them as such. The filmmakers also take great advantage of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, in the same fashion as Hitchcock used Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977-U.S. 135 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Music: John Williams. Production Design: Joe Alves. Visual Effects: Douglas Trumbull, and others. Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), François Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Cary Guffey, Bob Balaban… Lance Henriksen.

Trivia: Three different versions exist; subsequent cuts run 132 min. and 137 min. Paul Schrader wrote an original script that was rejected by Spielberg. Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were allegedly considered for the lead.

Oscars: Best Cinematography, Sound Effects Editing. BAFTA: Best Production Design/Art Direction.

Last word: “I remember writing all manner of seven note motifs. Seemed to me that when you got beyond five notes, to six or seven, it was not any longer a signal, but that was a melody. The difference between a melody and a signal, if you like. So, it was agreed and settled on the fact that it would be five notes, this beginning communication [with the aliens]. And I remember writing, I think it’s accurate to say, about 350 examples of what five notes could be, with no rhythmic variation. Five single notes played this way, four notes here and one there, etc. I wrote these 300-plus, and I kept playing over them for Steven… We never got to the point where we’d say, ‘Eureka! That is absolutely the one.’ It was more that there seems to be a greater pull toward this one. I have no way of explaining why that motif was the most successful… All of that communication was done on a keyboard synthesizer and pre-recorded, so that you could slow it down, the colored lights that we see on the screen could be activated by the keyboard. So in a sense, in a fanciful sense, it was a communication by sound, music, and by lights, color, and a synchronized effect of the two.” (Williams, Thirteen)

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