“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, is the thematic antitheses to 1996’s “Independence Day.” While Roland Emmerich’s retelling of “War of the Worlds” is a throwback to 1950s “invaders from space” flicks, Spielberg’s vision of a “close encounter” between humanity and extraterrestrials is more mysterious and, in the end, more hopeful and awe-inspiring. Instead of exchanging bullets and “heat rays,” humans and aliens communicate by using musical notes.
Spielberg’s screenplay divides “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” roughly into three acts, basically corresponding to each of the three kinds of “encounters.”
In the first category, sightings of a UFO, we first see a very strange sight in the Mexican desert: an international team of researchers led by French UFO expert Lacombe (the late Francois Truffaut) and guided by several Mexican “federales” finds five World War II vintage Grumman TBM Avengers. The planes are abandoned but strangely intact, as though they were brand new. “Who flies this kind of plane?” asks Laughlin, Lacombe’s bewildered cartographer/interpreter (Bob Balaban).
“No one,” replies another astonished researcher. “This is Flight 19.”
Flight 19, of course, is a reference to a Navy training flight which took off from Ft. Lauderdale one morning in December 1945 and vanished, along with a Martin Mariner search plane sent up to look for the missing planes and crews. Flight 19 is now famous in the lore of unsolved mysteries related to the Bermuda triangle.
Laughlin is baffled by something else, as well. A Mexican villager, old, sunburned, and seemingly delirious, keeps repeating, “El sol salio anoche y me canto. El sol salio anoche y me canto.” When Laughlin asks what the phrase means, a Spanish-speaking researcher who is fluent in Spanish says, “He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
Later, in the Indianapolis Air Traffic Control Center, a more dramatic “close encounter of the first kind” plays out on the radar scopes as airliner pilots call in reports of bright lights in the sky and unknown contacts make their presence known. For a few tense minutes it look as though tragedy is imminent, but within moments the contacts vanish into the night sky. Torn between reporting a UFO sighting or just letting the incident slide by, pilots and air traffic controllers alike opt to keep quiet, mainly to avoid having to fill out tons of bureaucratic paperwork.
As important as these sequences are, the focus of Spielberg’s story is on Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a line repairman for a Midwestern power company. Neary’s life on Earth is ordinary, hectic, and somewhat unfulfilling. Sent out to investigate a section of power lines in rural Indiana (caused, of course, by the UFOs’ passage), Neary has a close encounter of the first kind and impulsively goes on a truck-borne pursuit of two small “flying saucers.”
This sequence, which ends with a Keystone Kops-like police chase of the same UFOs, triggers an obsession within Neary that neither his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) nor his children will understand, much less accept. Neary, along with several hundred other people from different towns and states, will soon be haunted by both a visual image and a simple five-note musical phrase. The traces of the UFO flights that leave traces behind (sunburn on people who, like Neary, were exposed to bright light at night) are known as “close encounters of the second kind.”
Spielberg weaves Neary’s “everyman faces an extraordinary situation” plot with the official investigations being carried out by the UN-sponsored Lacombe team and a more secretive U.S. government “first contact” program. These plot threads will all lead to a climactic and awe-inspiring “close encounter of the third kind” – actual documented contact between humanity and another space-faring civilization.
Spielberg’s compelling story (he not only directed the film, but he wrote the screenplay) takes every aspect of the familiar UFO-sighting/alien abduction genre and makes his movie a wonderfully uplifting tale that reminds the viewer why we look up at the night sky and wonder if there is life “out there.” Fine performances by the entire cast, special effects that still dazzle the eye, and a beautiful (if sometimes eerie) score by John Williams add to the power of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
The 2001 Columbia/Tri-Star Collector’s Edition includes a re-edited version (trimming some excess material from the 1980 Special Edition) of the 1977 film. It also comes with a second disc loaded with extras such as a Laurent Bouzereau documentary on the making of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a 1977 promotional featurette, and theatrical trailers.
- Codec: MPEG-2
- Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
- Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1
- English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean
- Two-disc set (2 DVDs)
- Region 1
- Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
- Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
- DVD Release Date: May 29, 2001
- Run Time: 137 minute