Close Encounters involves the convergence of two separate but related stories. The first story unfolds in small vignettes that take their time to explain what is going on. In the first vignettes, a group of men race through the desert to find a collection of World War II era fighter craft, Grumman Avengers, in pristine condition. We don’t know this yet but these are the planes belonging to the doomed Flight 19 which vanished without a trace off of Florida. In the second, the same men find a ship, the SS Cotopaxi (which sank on her way to Cuba), in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert. In the third, an air traffic controller hears two planes report seeing UFOs flying near them. In the forth, the men are in India, where they seek villagers who claim to have seen something in the sky. These villagers provide the men with a series of musical tones which the men conclude are a form of communication.
The second story, which is interspersed between these vignettes, involves Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Indiana. Roy is out looking to fix a downed wire when he has a close encounter which sunburns half his face. This piques his interest and he starts to investigate UFOs. In the process, he meets a single mother named Jillian, who also has had a close encounter. Her son will be kidnapped by the aliens while she is in the house.
What Makes This Film So Awesome
Close Encounters is an awesome movie. It’s beautiful shot. It’s incredible well written. You really care about these characters. The plot is engaging. The mystery of what is going on is fascinating the first time through and still engaging even when you know how it will turn out. The movie has iconic music and sounds. It has amazing special effects too, blowing away those of today.
It’s also historically interesting because of the way it influenced UFO believers. Before this film, UFO abductees all over the world reported seeing very different aliens. But after this film, they all saw the small gray eunuchs with large heads and large eyes. So in a way, this film unified the UFO story, which has made the industry stronger... even though it should be discrediting.
Anyway, what makes this film so fantastic is the way Spielberg handled it. This was probably the film that cemented Spielberg’s empire, coming on the heels of Jaws and being a world wide mega-hit, and the reason why is that Spielberg was at the top of his game. This was Spielberg before he succumbed to commercialism and before he started using shortcuts to generate emotion. This was Spielberg when he took his time and told the story as it should be told.
The real key, however, is in the wide array of characters who get solid screen time. Roy is the everyman skilled laborer. His wife (Terri Garr) is the frustrated wife. Jillian is the overwhelmed single mom. David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is a cartographer who is enlisted in the search for clues because he can translate French into English. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is a French scientist and specialist in UFOs who leads the search for clues. Other prominent characters include an Air Force officer assigned to Project Blue Book, the Army commander in charge of clearing out Wyoming, air traffic controllers and the pilots to whom they speak, police, co-workers of Roy, Roy’s kids, a UFO crank, the men in charge of communicating with the aliens, and so on. Each of these characters feels real to us because we learn tons about them. In fact, we know more about them than we know about the lead characters in most modern films, and that makes the film feel real.
Now take Laughlin, who is a sort of narrator for the vignettes. He never tells us anything about his life, except that he was a cartographer who also speaks French. But we soon learn that he’s rather meek, that he’s amazed by what he’s seeing and wants to believe, that he’s a kind man, that he never once worries that the aliens might be a danger, and that he’s rather bright. We learn this in an intensely clever scene where he solves the key mystery. In this scene, Laughlin realizes that the signals sent by the aliens represent coordinates on a map. In most movies, he would blurt this out and the scene would end. But Spielberg doesn’t do this.
In fact, while we are talking about that scene, I think the brilliance of that entire scene deserves mention, as Spielberg converts a scene involving men talking into an action scene. He does this by having all the characters talking over each other and moving their arms around, which gives the impression of motion. Then, rather than grabbing a map, they find an enormous globe, which they free from its holder rather than carry back to their room and they let it roll toward the camera as they chase it. Again, this gives a sense of motion and urgency, and strangely it makes the audience tense as they wait to see if the men can catch the globe, just as it's tense waiting to see if Laughlin can interrupt them to be heard - in a similar moment, Roy is distracted by his wife as the television shows Devil's Tower in the background and it feels very tense as you wait to see if he will turn around in time to see it. Finally, rather than just finding the spot on the map, we watch two fingers trace the longitude and latitude lines until they connect, giving the audience a feeling of a race and a treasure being found, and then suddenly the room explodes in voices again.
The end result is that a scene which essentially only involves some men pondering the meaning of some numbers and looking it up on the map, turns into an action scene with a dramatic punch. Spielberg does this throughout the movie. This is what Spielberg used to do so well and which so few others ever managed to copy - make boring moments into heart-pounding scenes filled with real characters. Sadly, no one does this today. This is why this film is so amazing.
As an aside, notice that the rolling globe and the tracing of lines will appear again in Raiders of the Lost Ark.