What do aliens and mashed potatoes have in common? The connection between this unlikely pairing is quite evident to anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Suffice it to say, Roy Neary’s spud sculpture of Devils Tower is just one of the many famous elements from the iconic 1977 film, released only six months after another sci-fi movie you may have heard of: “Star Wars.”
With an $18 million budget, “Close Encounters” didn’t do too bad making a cool $303 million. It’s probably a good thing that the film’s postproduction was finished in June of that year or it may have been slaughtered at the box office by George Lucas’ “A New Hope,” which has raked in almost $800 million worldwide since its release, with groundbreaking special effects and an $11 million budget. But the rich history of cinema’s most famous space opera and the founding of Industrial Light & Magic is best saved for a later time.
Just two years after “Jaws,” Spielberg cemented his rightful place as one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers with “Close Encounters.” Moreover, his go-to themes of broken families and a childlike sense of wonder, which draw from his own youthful experience of his parents’ divorce, can be traced back to it.
The globe-spanning plot deals with the (spoiler!) encounters one can have with UFOs. The first kind is a sighting, the second is physical evidence and the third is contact. When strange discoveries are made and odd occurrences begin to happen, government agents and common citizens alike become obsessed with getting to the bottom of it all.
Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss in his second collaboration with the director), a simple electric line repairman, sadly lets his family fall by the wayside as he pursues ultimate contact with the aliens. It drives him somewhat mad as he piles the aforementioned potatoes onto his dinner plate or throws mounds of dirt into his house to recreate a model of an ultimate meeting point. Roy’s journey causes him to cross paths with Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey) with whom the otherworldly visitors show a particular interest. Guffey, who was only three at the time of filming, evokes that youthful naivete as he shows no fear when his toys turn on by themselves and red lights begin to fill his living room.
Famous French New Wave director Francois Truffaut (who won the 1974 Oscar for best foreign language film with “Day for Night”) is also featured in his American acting debut as a foreign scientist working with the U.S. government to try and conceal the truth behind the weirdness.
Unlike the evil, death-ray-wielding invaders of the 1950s B-movies, Spielberg’s choice to depict the aliens as nonviolent was quite a watershed moment for the genre. Like in “Jaws,” he shows little of them, upping the mystery and scrutinizing the effect they have on human individuals and their personal relationships. John Williams’ thoughtful soundtrack is what ties the entire bundle together with its instantly recognizable five-note motif and take on “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio.”
With each new scene, Spielberg dares us to dream bigger, like the shot of a massive tramp steamer in the Gobi Desert or the glowing alien mothership hovering over Devils Tower in Wyoming. Thankfully, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) was hired to make a lot of the breathtaking eye candy possible.
Even before 1977, you can find early traces of “Close Encounters” from “Firelight,” the director’s sci-fi feature that he made in 1964 at the age of 17. In it, scientists investigate the source of an otherworldly presence in the sky amid strange happenings in their town of Freeport, Arizona. Costing $500 to make, it was Spielberg’s first “commercial success” since he made a $1 profit at the film’s screening in a local movie theater.
Of course, Spielberg would go on to create other influential sci-fi films like “Jurassic Park” (1993), “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001) and “Minority Report” (2002). The concepts of aliens and government cover-ups, however, have been some of his favorite plot devices, resurfacing over the years in “E.T.” (1982), “War of the Worlds” (2005) and that sacrilegious 2008 “Indiana Jones” sequel, which we will not mention by name. His producing role with the “Men in Black” and “Transformers” franchises are further evidence of his attraction toward visitors from outer space. Today, J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” (which Spielberg also produced) is a loving modern homage to the 68-year-old director’s innocent adventures of yesteryear, inspired partly by “Close Encounters” and the arduous cut-and-paste method of filmmaking.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is truly vintage Spielberg and essential viewing for any fans of his movies. For its far-flung influence, you need not look far. From “Moonraker” to “South Park” to Mad Magazine, it is a piece of cinematic history that will live on in our hearts and imaginations. Because sometimes, there’s nothing you can do, but look up into the night sky and, like a kid, whisper in a humbled breath, “Wow.”