Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Guest Review

Close Encounters of the Third Kind movie reviewFor me, the best thing about writer/director Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is that Francois Truffaut is in it. Yes, the film is full of (for the time) wonderful special effects and the miniature aliens are inspired, but I’m just not a big fan of science fiction. When I scan my cinematic memory I can only think of two films from the genre that I really liked: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and District 9 (2009). As such, this hampers my appreciation for revered science fiction movies like this and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

 The first big mistake Spielberg makes is casting Bob Balaban as David Laughlin, Claude Lacombe’s (Truffaut) French interpreter. Perhaps it’s a small thing, but Balaban looks and sounds too much like the film’s star, Richard Dreyfuss. From the very start I was confused—what would a utility man from Muncie, Indiana, be doing in the Sonoran and Gobi Deserts? Yes, I eventually realized they were two separate men and actors, but it just seemed like a poor casting decision to me.

 Anyway, the film is about the three different types of encounters that humans can have with aliens. The first section of the movie deals with the sightings of UFOs that no one wants to report for fear of being labeled a kook. The second encounter is, I suppose, when alien ships hover above you and shine a light bright enough to give you a severe sunburn—thus, creating evidence that you have been touched by an alien. This happens to Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her son, Barry (Cary Guffey). Well, Barry’s experience is slightly different than the others, because he willingly makes contact (the third encounter) before everyone else. After he starts joyfully chasing the aliens through the cornfields you think he may not be right in the head, but when you actually see the aliens at the end of the film you realize he probably thought he was running after an image of himself, as he looks suspiciously a lot like them. I ask you, where was Barry’s father and why was he never mentioned?

 While Barry was off gallivanting with the aliens, an image of Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, was being implanted in Roy and Jillian’s minds. Both are compelled to artistically depict this message—Jillian endlessly sketches and Roy builds first a mashed potato mountain and then a clay sculpture of the landform. Roy’s actions are of particular consequence, as his wife (Teri Garr) and three children leave him after he appears to have become completely unglued.

 The man who brings all of the stories together is Lacombe. Based on a bizarre conversation in Northern India, Lacombe figures out that the aliens communicate via a five-tone musical phrase in a major scale. He then starts explaining this to other scientists using the Zoltan Kodaly—using hand signals to reference musical notes. With the help of his interpreter and Dreyfuss lookalike, they figure out that the aliens are sending them longitudinal coordinates that indicate, you guessed it, Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. What happens next is a music and light show from out of this world—literally.

Let’s forget that I wasn’t that interested in Roy’s and Jillian’s compulsion to track down the aliens in Wyoming and focus on what I liked about Close Encounters of the Third Kind. First, Spielberg let Truffaut speak 90% of his lines in French, thus adding some authenticity to an otherwise ridiculous character. Second, as creepy as the music was, composer John Williams made it memorable. Although I don’t drop acid, I can appreciate the work that went into creating first the various UFOs and then the massive mothership. Douglas Trumbull and his special effects crew did an awesome job with the ships, and Carlo Rambaldi’s aliens were creepily cute—I especially liked when one smiled. Other than that, I wasn’t overly impressed.

My quest to find another science fiction movie that I can admire continues. Although Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a visually impressive film, it falls short in the area of storytelling and lacks a character that I could really bring myself to either root for or against. I do like the fact, however, that the aliens were peaceful and not trying to destroy the planet. Surely that is something.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.


  • Jeffry Heise

    I saw this film on opening day in Cleveland, Ohio and a) never had a problem with differentiating between Bob Balaban and Richard Dreyfuss; b) never thought that Truffaut’s character was ridiculous in any way-the shifting from French to English a few times was jarring at first but I was later told by friends who have been to France that many native French speakers will suddenly switch to English for a sentence or two then back to French seamlessly, and the natives aren’t exactly sure why they do it either; c) I always thought that the reason the aliens took Barry was because he resembled them and others have also theorized on this, as well (maybe Barry’s father was an alien….fascinating…); and d) I find it interesting that you write for a blog about 1001 movies you must see but you only liked 2 speculative fiction films (good choices, by the way). So, out of that 1001 films you only have those two, but no E.T., BLADE RUNNER, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THINGS TO COME, METROPOLIS, STAR WARS, FORBIDDEN PLANET or SOLARIS? Really? I think it is time you went back and re-examined those titles to see if you might be able to squeeze a few more into your list. CE3K is no masterpiece (I have problems with the structure and the middle section of the film although I think the 3rd version that Spielberg put together that includes footage from both the original version and the “Special Edition” [so glad he did not include the interior of the mothership-it was a big letdown] is the best one) but the final act lifts it into the “must include” category for anyone who loves cinema.

  • Gord Jackson

    I have seen all three versions, liked them initially, but now find myself more than a little bored by it all. Too many viewings? I doubt it. I just don’t think, beyond the last quarter of the film, it was anything special. Indeed, the Roy Neary/Dreyfuss mashed potato constructions was much too long and unwieldy in the first version and I was something less than blown away by the ‘no way will I stand by my man’ cliche forced upon poor Terri Garr. CE3K does have its moments, but on the whole it doesn’t stand up, at least not for me.

  • kc

    ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh it was cute for its time. And the music great. Of course Bob Balaban played the smart map reader in his past…….someone had to look the part and he did. My x looks just like he did and believe me, it wasn’t wrong to cast Bob, he looked the part…and it made billions didn’t it.

  • JK

    I agree with the reviewer about the disconcerting similarity in appearance between Bob Balaban and Richard Dreyfuss. Balaban is talented and versatile, but it took me a while before I could readily discern between the two — an unnecessary distraction from the rest of the film.

    • Bruce Reber

      BTW, Balaban played the nerdy kid that hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) went into the theater with (where a B sci-fi movie about space was showing) in “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). Then there was the scene in the men’s room afterward, when Balaban couldn’t pay Joe for his services – Joe tries to take his watch, and Balaban says that his mother “will die” if he comes home without it – Joe retorts “I don’t want your goddam watch!” and leaves in disgust.

  • Frosty

    What people don’t seem to realize about this movie is that these aliens are evil. They’ve been kidnapping earthlings since W.W. II, maybe longer. They’ve caused tremendous grief for the families of these victims. Yet the movie treats them as wonderful visitors, welcoming them with open arms. I think, at the very least, they have some explaining to do.

    • Bruce Reber

      Yeah, but they brought them all back, didn’t they? If they were evil they’d just start blasting away with their lasers (or whatever) and annihilate Earth.

  • jumbybird

    Why bother reviewing it?

  • –Jon DeCles

    This was kind of like reading an opera review by someone who hates opera. This is the first time I have encountered anyone who confused the two characters, who thought Lacombe was ridiculous, and who seems to have confused the musical method with the composer (Kodaly). To have found John Williams’ music ‘creepy’ is, to me, unintelligible. The little boy didn’t look like the aliens to me: he looked just like my son, and that made the whole film terrifying, right up to the end. The mashed potato scene left me in tears, as our protagonist attempts desperately to convey something he does not understand to his uncompassionate wife and kids. –Wonder how they would have treated him if he’d come down with cancer? Dreyfus gave us a level of inarticulate desperation that we last saw in in James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.” I do agree with the comment that the version which showed us the inside of the ship was a mistake, as nothing could be as compelling as the open ending as our hero heads out, not knowing what will come next, but full of hope and with an open mind. The film still resonates with me after this many years. But then I enjoy the play of ideas, like speculation in my fiction, find imagination a plus rather than a negative, and am bored to death by pseudo-realism that confines itself to the immediate present, never allowing that things might change, and probably will by the time you have your new computer operating system installed. “Close Encounters” remains, for me, one of the most visually and emotionally beautiful films of the last half century. However, if I may offer a Welleriism that we all knew on the farm: “It’s all a matter of taste, as the old woman said when she kissed the cow.”

    • Bill

      The only thing in the review or your comment that I find truly
      ridiculous is *any* comparison of Richard Dreyfus’ addle-headed
      character and James Dean’s Jim Stark! Dreyfus isn’t a bad actor, but
      he’s no James Dean – in any respect.
      I didn’t find the film ridiculous, simply boring. On and on and on and on…edited to 90
      minutes it might have been watchable, but at 2-1/4 hours – snoozefest.

  • Movie Fan

    I love science fiction, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one of the dumbest movies EVER! What a waste of time. Why would a bunch of aliens go to so much trouble to build a huge home ship, travel billions of miles to Earth, then suddenly get all shy and coquettish? (That’s Southern for blinking your eyelashes while hiding behind your fan…) Why kidnap all those people, hold them for forty years, then suddenly let them go? No explanation, no souvenirs??? All that advanced technology and they didn’t even get new clothes! Talk about cheap! Who needs tightwad aliens? Maybe I should introduce you to my brother-in-law, since he’s a cheapo too! Uh…ahem…anyway, I hated that movie. Bleah!

  • Mike

    I always felt this movie was kind of a mess that was completly changed around in editing. Since so many people worship this film I hate to point out how much I hated it, and the magicians light show that passed as a space ship at the end. Why was Terri Garr, a comedic gem cast if it wasn’t meant to be a farce. At some point in time I think..somebody took a look at the footage and said WTF????? about that time somebody decided to just go with it and hope the space lovers would think there were hidden meanings..

  • Jim

    Anyone that pans this movie could not have seen it on the big screen when it was in first run theaters! I was a young science teacher in an inner city high school in Providence, RI and took 3 busloads of students to a suburban mall’s theater (no longer in existence) to see this film. I had gotten promotional material, and teaching material from the promoters for pre and post viewing activities. Some others thought I was “crazy” to risk such a field trip. Well, the film on a Cinemascope screen in THX sound with a group that nearly filled both of the twin cinemas was wonderful. There was an “electricity” in the theaters that you just can’t feel watching this film at home on any size screen. It’s a totally different film! You become part of it.
    I think that’s one reason why “going to the movies” has remained so popular especially for the young.
    Can you imagine what it was like being at a premiere showing of “Gone With the Wind” or “Ben Hur” or “Lawrence of Arabia”?