Set in the 1970s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind tells three distinct stories, all of which conclude together in a beautiful ending. The first is about a man who sees some bright lights in the sky that drive him to a point of insanity. The next, a woman whose child was snatched up, presumably by those same lights. The final, a scientist and his team trying to discover just what these lights mean, and where they’re coming from. Each story is simple, yet charming and quite pleasant to watch, with very few twists to get in the way of the plot.
The everyman story is the first, which has Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family learn a valuable lesson about chasing after UFOs that emit bright lights. After their encounter, he begins to see only a mountain, which he feels the need to draw or sculpt, on or out of anything available to him. It’s really quite sad watching Ronnie (Teri Garr), his wife, and his kids, be driven away from him because of how crazy he becomes. This obsession takes over his life, and perhaps functions as a cautionary tale to those with passion projects that begin to play a more important role than everything else.
Next, we have Jillian (Melinda Dillon), whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), is taken away from her after a sequence which is startling in how scary it is. The film is family friendly enough, but this one scene could startle children and adults alike. Bright red lights fill the room, and you fear not only for Barry and Jillian’s safety, but for your own, too, simply because it’s from a source unknown.
Finally, we have the French scientist, Claude (played by French New Wave director François Truffaut). He and the government are trying to figure out what’s behind the UFOs, and more importantly, what’s inside them. The only other important character in this arc is David (Bob Balaban), who acts as the translator between Claude and the other scientists — as well as sometimes being able to read maps. That’s important, maybe, so make note of it. Or don’t. I don’t really care.
The first thing that I have to praise about Close Encounters is that it looks absolutely amazing. The fantastic special effects — practical effects, mind you — that were used in its creation look fabulous, especially near the climax, when you finally get to see the thing that has been, by some accounts, terrorizing civilians for a few days. I’m sure you can already figure out what it is, especially considering the UFOs in the sky, but if you happen to remain pleasantly oblivious, I’d like to keep it that way.
Seriously, you watch the ending to Close Encounters and you are awestruck by just what director Stephen Spielberg has managed to create. It just looks so good that even though it is also thrilling and fairly emotional, you’re almost taken aback simply because of how impressive it is on a visual scale. However, just because the visual is almost overpowering doesn’t mean that the other elements aren’t there. It is an absolutely powerful ending, thrilling and full of emotion that might take your breath away.
The lead-up to the ending isn’t quite as good. You have to trudge through a lot to get to this point in the film, which is really too bad. It does allow for us to get to know these characters, but if they were doing something more interesting with their time, I would have been happier. There’s a lot of repetition in Rob’s story — it’s actually surprising how much his wife and kids put up with, to be quite honest — and there’s not enough development or explanation to the other two, especially with Jillian and Barry. Barry gets taken away and then that’s it until the end — at which point, Jillian functions as a love interest, for no reason.
The main thing that I remember Close Encounters for happens after the revelation regarding what is inside of the UFOs and what their desire is. I still won’t give it away — you have to watch for yourself — but suffice to say that it’s rather unique and interesting, especially for 1977. Add that into the fantastic visuals and you have a memorable conclusion to an otherwise solid but not terribly interesting film.
The only two characters that I can really remember from the film are Roy, because he’s given so much time on-screen that it’s impossible not to remember him, and Truffaut’s scientist, if only because it’s amazing that Spielberg got Truffaut to play a role in his film. Dreyfuss is an everyman who makes us feel as if we could be in his place, making him effective — far more effective than someone like, say, Jack Nicholson, who most of us would recognize, would be (he was the man Spielberg initially offered the role to).
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that is largely unspectacular right up until its ending, but at that point, it comes alive and becomes a memorable, exciting, and engaging movie that’s absolutely worth your time. It makes the previous two hours worthwhile because of how effectively it makes us feel awe, wonder, and almost everything that one can feel while watching a motion picture like this one. It’s also so visually impressive that you owe it to yourself to see it simply for how much work was put into this area of production.