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Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Tagline: We are not alone

Pizza: Joe Peeps



-R. NEARY, 1977

"Mr. Neary, I envy you." That's what alien-hunter Claude Lacombe tells Roy Neary when it's clear Neary is about to embark on a magical journey. And that's what I too was thinking when I realized RMCer-In-Attendance Jessie had never seen CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND before. There's nothing like seeing this movie for the first time. "Miss Jessie. I envy you."

So, okay, remember when (or did you even know that) movies would play longer than a week? Sometimes months? Sometimes half a year? That means if you liked a movie, you could see it again in a few weeks or months. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) is the first movie I remember where people went back to the theaters the next day. I know because, you guessed it, I was one of them. And like the film's main character, Roy Neary, people I knew thought I was nuts for going back to see the UFOs again. Neary got to see them in the actual sky. Me, I had to drive into NYC to see them at the Ziegfeld theater. I understood Roy really well. I still do. Hell, I even took a road trip to Devil's Tower a few years ago.

gobi desert shipwreck
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS opens with a gimmick that surely looks cheap on paper but works astonishingly well in the movie. A black screen along with the distant rumbling of an orchestra, as if the projectionist forgot to turn the volume up. But soon the orchestra crescendos (use your 5.1 and crank that subwoofer) to a pizzicato hit (sort of like the end of A DAY IN THE LIFE, but a bit more atonal), and we're slapped in the face with white light which dissolves to a sandstorm in the Sonora Desert. Steven Spielberg has just set the table for his delicious movie.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) after his first encounter

Richard Dreyfuss is perfect at representing the average guy; wife, kids, dog, suburbia, pudgy. Roy Neary is an electric company employee, lost on a road when he has a close encounter of the first kind - a sighting (the second is physical evidence, the third is contact). He gets his reluctant wife Ronnie (Teri Garr, whom Spielberg had noticed from a coffee commercial) and kids to follow him back to the desolate country road, but the UFOs don't show. And that can only mean one thing - dad is nuts. But he's not, because we saw them too. And what's with the massive power drain that blacks out the entire landscape, one grid at a time, displayed in a breathtaking shot over the Indiana countryside and done in near silence? It's not just that Neary has to try and convince his family he's seen UFOs, he's also obsessed with an upside-down cone shape; in a pillow, formed in shaving cream, a dirt mound. Why, even the mashed potatoes on the dinner table confound him with some sort of implanted memory he can't call up. He only knows it means something. "This is important."





Though this is clearly Roy's story, two other plots unfold concurrently. Frenchman Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut, the only time he's acted in an American film) leads a UFO-hunting task force who discover WWII planes in the desert. How did they get there? Where are the pilots' bodies? How the hell are the planes still operational?? Though we don't yet have the answers, we know we're going to have a fun ride getting there. Not too far from Roy's house are single mom Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey). At three and a half, Guffey actually looked a bit alien-y but with a face full of wonder. This was famously achieved by Spielberg unwrapping gifts off camera (that's why Barry says "Toys!") or someone wearing a gorilla suit, only to reveal himself by removing the head.


Jillian and Barry (Melinda Dillon and Cary Guffey)

Doorway Glow

There are so many wonderful scenes in CE3K that it would be like me giving an Oscar speech (again??), meaning, if I listed them, I'm sure I'd accidentally leave a few out. Also, they're so much fun, why would I sit here and ruin it for you? But I will mention a few without giving anything away. Like when Roy waves the car behind him to go around. Or when Barry opens the door. Or - Air traffic Controller: "TWA 517, do you want to report a UFO?" Or when the glass breaks in the tower. Or "I saw Bigfoot once." Or the little Tinker Bell-ish ship that trails the others like a caboose. Or the great line of dialogue which I believe to be original: "You can't fool us by agreeing with us!" Or the battleship. Or - TWA pilot: "Negative. We don't want to report." Or the scary flashlight. And of course...those mashed potatoes.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is a movie about aliens no more than THE DEER HUNTER is a movie about Vietnam. It's about a blue collar guy from middle America with a wife and three kids, whose marriage seems to have some minor wear on the edges. They are a family living in the Spielburbs, a territory that Spielberg was so much better at displaying, ironically, before he himself had a wife and kids. It's a family where the TV is always on even if no one is watching. And they can't really control their kids, as witnessed by one of them hopping in the playpen and beating the shit out of a doll until its head pops off. Sure, Roy and Ronnie still wear their wedding bands, and when they find themselves in a familiar location, RONNIE: "We used to come here to snuggle," for a moment, it looks like it may go back to things as they used to be. But then, while kissing, Roy steals a glance at the night sky. It's a small moment yet it tells us everything. Roy has an obsession he can't shake. He's a hellbent crusader who finds himself on a path he can't help but choose, as if he was summoned (toldya I understood him!), one that will test his family as well as his very existence.


Hiding under the surface of the story is the bond of family. After Ronnie and the kids leave him, Roy goes on his adventure not only leaving them behind, but taking Jillian, another UFO-spotter (with a more tragic backstory) along with him. I never really saw this as Roy being unfaithful to Ronnie (though there is a minor flirty scene were Jillian shows Roy where she got burned by the UFO lights).
No, these people have been fatefully welded together. However, Spielberg himself said that if he made the movie today (he had no wife and kids back then), he never would have let Roy leave his family. So then what? His family would reunite at the end? Because you have kids, suddenly the fictional story needs to change?? Pshaw of the third kind!! Why not go and digitally erase the guns in the hands of the government agents in E.T. and replace them with walkie-talkies while you're at it!

NEW THOUGHT: I don't know how come I have all the DVDs I own. I don't buy many, having long ago decided to skip the DVD Age after tiring of rebuying the same movies in multiple formats. But Amazon had the 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition (Blu-ray) for $10, so I snapped it up. Normally, owning a DVD is the kiss of death for me, for I find that whenever I acquire a DVD, it sits on the shelf, sealed. So even as I bought this, I knew I'd never see it. Sometimes, I guess, a DVD is like a book; they make us feel good to own them. They're there for you and your guests to see. Really, how many books are on your shelf right now that you know you will re-read? Anyway, against all odds, I finally decided to actually watch the Blu-ray. By the way, I just checked, and the set (at the time of this writing) is still at a stupid low price of $16. BUY IT.

There are three versions of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and the 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition has them all. First came the 1977 theatrical release. Three years later, they released THE SPECIAL EDITION because Spielberg felt rushed when releasing the original version. His deal with the devil (Columbia Pictures) was that he could shoot new footage, as long as he added scenes of Roy Neary inside the mothership at the end. Well, I'm not the only one to say that although there were some terrific new scenes in this version (Oh...that battleship!!), this was an evil, horrible thing to do. The tacky, tacked-on ending of Roy inside the spaceship with that dumb smile removed all the magic, awe and curiosity of the original and...pissed me off big time. And although they raked in millions more, they painted over the Mona Lisa to do it. Spielberg himself has remarked, "I should never have gone there." The third version, never released in theaters, is the Director's Cut. Though the purist in me wants to vote for the original theatrical version, in my eyes, it's the Director's Cut that works best. Not only did he remove the offensive ending, but he also added the few scenes from The Special Edition that I liked. GEEK NOTE: There is actually a fourth version, if you count the one they once ran on TV, which I believe included every scene from the first two versions.


I'd like to also point out that this Blu-ray set has some wonderful extras, including a 1hr 43 min documentary, deleted scenes, trailers...lots of stuff. Here's where you'll learn things like at one point there were cubes of light that were to act as "scouts" for the mothership. And the failed attempts at alien-making, like using marionettes and (ready for this?) how they tried to push an orangutan wearing a spandex alien costume and roller skates down a ramp. Too bad that footage isn't included, huh? Guess we'll have to wait for the 35th Anniversary Special Deluxe Platinum Super Premium Special (again) Limited Edition 14 Disk Blu-ray/DVD Combo + UltraViolet Digital Copy for that.

Written before, during and after JAWS, CE3K credits Spielberg as sole writer. But others did work on it at different stages, including ODD COUPLE TV writer Jerry Belson (not the first time Spielberg used a writer from THE ODD COUPLE. Carl Gottlieb co-wrote JAWS.). Richard Dreyfuss heard Spielberg yapping about his next movie while on the JAWS set, but he wasn't approached until other actors passed, like Steve McQueen (he said he couldn't cry on cue), Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. Dreyfuss won the part because, as Spielberg would later explain, Dreyfuss is Spielberg. He's the child who won't grow up (not so true anymore, MUNICH-boy). This isn't the only Peter Pan thing (remember my earlier reference to Tinker Bell?). When we first meet Roy, he is trying to persuade his kids to see the reissue of PINOCCHIO in the theaters (they out-voted him in favor of Goofy Golf). And, in the Special Edition, you'll hear traces of WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR in John Williams' score during the end titles.


CE3K is one of the few movies where I actually enjoy product placement. There was enough plantings of Coke to scrub the mothership clean, and this was five years before the Coca-Cola Company bought Columbia pictures. Here's what I spotted: 1) A neon Coke sign, the only recognizable icon in the opening Sonora Desert scene. 2) A government big-rig disguised as a Coke truck (Piggly Wiggly and Baskin Robbins trucks as well). 3) There's even a can of Tab (a Coke product) in one of the trailers (an actual trailer, not a movie trailer). But something about these products provided a grounded normalcy for me. While all the unexplained phenomena are occurring, The Real Thing is there to make it a real thing. In the county-wide blackout scene, it's McDonald's that goes dark. The iconography of America, again, making it all real... and oddly comforting.

One thing always niggles at my thick skull; what was the point of Jillian taking pictures of the Brobdingnagian mothership with her Instamatic camera. Why is that in the movie? It never gets paid off. Was Spielberg already thinking sequel? If he was...or is...(and he shouldn't be)...he could certainly start with Roy's' return. The aliens seem to bring you back 34 years later (WWII pilots returned in 1977). Also, we can learn exactly how much the experience messed Barry up for life.

CE3K holds up very well. I think it's as new today as it was 34 years ago. And although I've seen the movie dozens of times (which answers the "How come I know so much?" question), I hadn't seen it in maybe 8 years. It was great seeing my old friend again. Man, he just gets better with age. Even the effects hang tough. I think these effects are better than most anything they make using CG today. This movie got everything right. But let's face it, though the effects are unbeatable, Vilmos Zsigmond's (and others) cinematography magical, John Williams score one of his best and Dreyfuss' performance, also, one of his best, its Spielberg who is the star of this movie. Why? Because although it is gigantic in scope, it's really a deeply personal movie (when he was a kid, his dad yanked him out of bed in the middle of the night to a field filled with strangers...all there to watch...a meteor shower.). In fact, it was James Lipton on INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO that asked Spielberg if communicating with the aliens through a computerized musical keyboard was an homage to his mom and dad (mom was a concert pianist, dad a computer programmer). This took Spielberg by total surprise. He'd never thought of that.

CE3K was made during his Blockbuster Era. This was a period when Spielberg's movies boiled over with emotion while entertaining the hell out of us. I mean, within five years he made JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and E.T. WOW! Let's see you do that! (Okay, he also made 1941...unWOW!) Additionally, with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, he made a movie about aliens that are...friendly. Gone are all the Cold War metaphors and the fear and paranoia. Fear is replaced by joy here, and that takes skill. I'd like to see him make JURASSIC PARK with friendly dinosaurs.

After all these years, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND still fills me up. So much of what makes it work so well for me is that although it's technically a science fiction film, it's rooted in a real world with real emotions. There are moments of sadness (when his son silently cries while watching his dad go bananas at the dinner table, it can tear your heart out), but CE3K is joy-saturated, and made with, as the man himself said, "the optimism of childhood." And that's not just in the big picture sense but also in specific moments in the movie. Witness the way Roy tries to get his son to learn fractions or his giddy reaction after his close encounter. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is where Roy and I differ. I would have hid in a spider hole in Tikrit after witnessing what he did.) Also, Roy wasn't a cop (he was, in an earlier version of the script) and he wasn't played by whoever was the hot actor that year. He really was an average schmoe, just like you. This point leads me to:

In the great STAR WARS vs. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS debate, I always fall on the CE3K side. I'm not a fantasy guy (well, movie fantasy, anyway). STAR WARS, which came out only six months earlier, never did a thing for me. I mean, it was fun seeing it in the theater, but it takes a lot for me to care about robots and characters with nonsense names. For me to care about a character, he has to bleed and cry and laugh and, at very least, have feelings. Yes, he has to be human or possess human qualities, like E.T. and WALL•E. So yeah, STAR WARS doesn't excite me, but CE3K does. It makes me laugh and cry. It fills me full of wonder. It's one of my favorite movies, and if you're anything like me, a nut that never gets tired of the child-like wonderment not only in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS but in life itself, well I'm here to tell you - we are not alone.



Freddys Nightmares
We watched one of the 44 episodes of this late 80's low budget anthology show. Why? Because it had a pre-famous Brad Pitt, who was looking a tad Wham-y. What a piece of crap. Brad plays Rick, who has just eloped with Miranda...both determined to make it on their own. But in this ridiculous story, anything can happen (or are they dreaming? Or do we care?). It's one cheesy scene after another, with the synth music often mixed louder than the dialogue. Popping up in the show (literally, out of a manhole cover) is Freddy. But his appearances are meaningless and just silly. Yuck.

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